Arguments, Too

I spent a good part of today talking to a Ph.D. with whom I am involved on a research project. She said something I thought might be useful here. She said, “If they want to attack you, they will assail your methodology.” I don’t know if this is better or worse, but what I take that to mean is there’s a second level of “argument” which skips the content and works only in the minutia, like a lawyer trying to get a case thrown out because of failed Miranda warnings or other procedural grounds. I suppose it is also a sobering reminder to so that we can construct the least assailable studies.

Quantifying Red Plank

Red Plank

Red Plank

Breaking things down into their component parts and analyzing them comes very naturally to me.  I happen see things in structures and, usually, with some impartiality.  Art, on the other hand, is very challenging for me. 

While I have a certain very broad sense of what might be considered not very good and what might be considered very good, even those assumptions are wrong maybe 20% of the time.  There is also a context to art; the history, the movement of ideas and experiments, what has come before.  I am not unread in this regard, but the subtleties frequently elude me as does the answer to the question, “But why would anybody do that?”  Jackson Pollock and cigarette butts on canvas falls into that category.

Most of modern art leaves me baffled.  I distinctly remember a trip to Chicago’s Art Institute when I was a child.  There was a lacquered red 2 x 6 board on a pedestal called “Red Plank.”  Even my memory gives it more structure than it had; it had no pedestal, it was “leaning.”  Apparently, its worthiness for display in one of the Nation’s best art museums is due to its being “striking in (its) monolithic simplicity and characterized by pure, monochromatic surfaces, McCracken’s handcrafted ‘planks,’ which rest on the floor and lean against the wall, successfully blur the boundary between painting and sculpture.”

What I wonder is this: is the art world rigorous?  If we were to craft a survey, asking recognized art experts to explain the reasons certain pieces of art cross the boundary into “art,” would they agree?  More interesting still, if we had these experts analyze a number of unknown works, would they agree on which were worthy?  However, there is a flaw in that study, by definition “unknown” means either undiscovered or not noteworthy.  The art world is constantly encountering works at its lowest end and making decisions as to which get elevated to higher and higher degrees of regard.  “Red Plank’s” artist somehow made it from garage to art festival to small galleries to large museums through a filtering process.  Other artists who initially displayed with John McCracken may still be showing their art at neighborhood events.

My suspicion (and I mean suspicion in the sense of when you’re having a conversation where you fear that someone is pulling your leg, but you aren’t sure) is that the process is all too human and that much of becoming recognized “art” involves succeeding in an echo chamber of people, all of whom are trying to look good or smart or visionary, trying to get onto the right side of every evaluation.  “Hmmm, it’s interesting.  What do you think?”   “Oh, I like the simplicity of lines.”  “ I like the brilliant monochromatic pallet.”  “Yes, it does blur the line between painting and sculpture.”  It just would not be cool to say, “Uh, guys, it’s just a 2 x 6 somebody lacquered red, for God’s sake!”

To conclude, I have no sense for this (or for music or for wine, for that matter) but I wonder if anybody else does either, really.  I would like to see a rigorous standard applied and I would like to see how the art on the periphery does when held to that standard.  I do believe that everything is quantifiable, even if subjectively (e.g. take a poll of art critic, list their reasons, etc.).  It might even be useful to run a study to discover the list of criteria to poll on (e.g. originality, quality of execution, importance within an artistic movement, place in art history, brilliance of vision, aesthetics, etc.).  It would also be interesting to run a study of how the experts line up versus the public.  Is there a gap between the professional and the amateur?  Where are the fault lines?  I suppose too it would be interesting to track art’s valuation (not price but the rating of its artistic merits) over time to see if art follows a fad-like pattern or a more informed sorting algorithm.

Qualitative Research, Part IV

In general, the thing I struggle with most is that qualitative research has no expectation of impartiality. I am beginning to understand that this is because at least some of the proponents of qualitative research explicitly reject the possibility of impartiality. I guess I’m a positivist by nature and my natural Libra inclination is to see and hear both sides of arguments. Anyway, I struggle with the idea of deliberate bias in research, of prejudged advocacy. I don’t know where it leaves us if everything we read takes a side, how do we get to truth? Yes, I know many of the folks who advocate for qualitative research reject the concept of truth, but honestly I don’t see how to move forward if there’s no truth.

Qualitative and Quantitative Research

Qualitative and qunatitative research both have their uses as well as their misuses. I think quantitative research is somewhat harder to misuse because the structural constraints and expectations are much clearer. Any partisan instinct, when exposed, seriously damages the weight of the paper. This seems to not be the case in qualitative research where it appears that advocacy is not only tolerated but, in some quarters, cheered. I find that disturbing. Science is a service business, service to the human race. It cannot serve two masters, the human race and a partisan cause. There is a role for partisan advocacy in serving the human race, we see it nightly on MSNBC, et al. But there it is clearly understood to be the free competition of partisan ideas.

I was particularly tweaked by the second paper in our text because I think the instinct to second guess as if “nothing bad should ever happen in life and if it does it’s somebody’s fault” is a generally unwise. Thus, the author’s making an issue of the fact that the university didn’t appear to be making a plan to deal with shooting incidents when few of the participants felt the same way was a misuse of the platform. Of course, the same happens in quantitative research. The confusion over global warming is a great example. It seems clear to me that many of the advocates of global warming didn’t like industrialization in the first place. They’re thrilled to “find” ecological issues to stop with science what they couldn’t stop with advocacy. And it is equally clear that there is a great deal of money being poured into both sides of the argument, paying for research. Neither Exxon nor the Sierra Club is all that interested in paying for research that contradicts its advocacy. The result is a blizzard of claim and counter claim, all backed by “science.” When I was a kid, the buzz was the coming of the new ice age. Today, it’s global warming. How do I know what to believe and therefore how to act? It’s unnerving and a disservice to us all.

When we go into a jury box, we are sworn to put our biases aside. I think most people do the best they can, and I think their best is pretty good. I believe that is what science demands: rigorous impartiality. That is hard enough to obtain in quantitative research, but qualitative research seems to not even have that as an expectation. That’s a problem for me.

Gender-based Educational Strategies

I think there’s no question that gender-based strategies need to be taught to teachers and incorporated into classrooms just as VAK, multiple intelligences, and many other tools for understanding and reaching students more effectively are. I think teachers who say, “I teach to every child individually” are on the right path however they do need the education to fully comprehend what those distinct personalities require.

In particular, boys are frequently very much of a mystery for many teachers (though girls have their gender-based learning challenges too, obviously). So for me, the key is getting teachers to teach to coed classes using gender-based teaching strategies (amongst others). However, one of the leading writers on this subject, Leonard Sax, has apparently moved to advocating single sex classrooms and perhaps schools. I think a lot is lost, particularly in single sex schools. But there are certainly times and situations where differentiating by sex might help (for example in middle school when there is already so much change going on).

Here’s a table that shows gender-differentiated scores on the English Language Arts portion of the California CST. Note pretty uniformly 8% fewer boys than girls are scoring proficient or better.

Boys – Girls            
Adv & Prof 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th
2009 -8% -5% -8% -8% -7% -9%
2008 -7% -5% -7% -6% -6% -10%
2007 -9% -8% -7% -7% -5% -9%
2006 -7% -6% -8% -7% -6% -10%
2005 -6% -6% -7% -7% -6% -10%
2004 -7% -6% -7% -8% -6% -10%
2003 -7% -7% -8% -8% -5% -8%
Average -7% -6% -7% -7% -6% -9%
Median -7% -6% -7% -7% -6% -10%
Adv & Prof 8th 9th 10th 11th Average Median
2009 -8% -8% -7% -9% -8% -8%
2008 -9% -8% -8% -8% -7% -7%
2007 -9% -10% -8% -8% -8% -8%
2006 -8% -8% -9% -6% -7% -7%
2005 -8% -10% -9% -6% -7% -7%
2004 -8% -9% -9% -6% -7% -7%
2003 -8% -8% -8% -8% -7% -8%
Average -8% -9% -8% -7% -7% -7%
Median -8% -8% -8% -8% -7% -7%

The Trouble with Boys

Can you think of an example of an instructional strategy that would not be developmentally appropriate for a given age group?

There is growing doubt about teaching reading and writing skills to kindergarten boys. For whatever reason, boys lag girls in both verbal processing and fine motor skills by, on average, 1 1/2 years at 5 years old. We wouldn’t try to teach most 3 1/2 year old girls to read and write but have no trouble trying to make boys with the same abilities as those young girls to do the same. This has profound implications. Early difficulties in school can create learned helplessness and a lifelong negative perception of both reading and school in general. It is obviously far more complex than this and boys have significantly more nature-based hurdles in school than just this one. But the effect is clear. I put together a 4 minute, totally fact based and fully referenced video, for anybody that’s interested:

There are several solutions to this phenomenon. One is easy: start boys who appear likely to have these issues in kindergarten at 6 instead of 5 years old. There are also a variety of teaching techniques that particularly suit the gender-specific learning needs of students. As just one example, boys do considerably better if their verbal faculties are recruited first through storyboarding or other non-verbal, imaginative exercises.

Landspeeder Math

In a prior post, I advocated using movies to connect students to their studies.

For me, history comes alive in fiction. When I’ve read a story or seen a movie about a past time, somehow the factual material becomes connected and relevant. I know that’s how it works for my daughter too. She has American Girl dolls and each one comes from a particular period in American history. There are also novels about those girls in that era, based on diaries of real historical girls. She can tell you about living in the Blitz in London or what ocean liner travel was like in 1912. Now she says to me, “Daddy, I want to read more history.” This from a 1st grader.

On a related subject, there is a lot of enthusiasm in a classroom that usually goes untapped. I know Star Wars is huge amongst the boys of my daughter’s class. It seems to me that hooking lessons and rewards into the Star Wars universe would be hugely enrolling and captivating for those boys. Yet I’ve never seen it done. “If Luke Skywalker is racing his landspeeder against five of his friends, how many Tatooine landspeeders are in the race altogether?”

This one is trickier but, with no encouragement at all, many of the boys in her class (like, I think, most boys everywhere) love to draw battle scenes when they have free time. Those battle scenes are usually complex and frequently nuanced. I know the implied violence bugs a lot of teachers, but it is fantasy violence, not rehearsal of real warmaking. And it is a vast supply of energy and opportunity discarded in most classrooms today.

Less Art in the Classroom!

In my view there is too darned much art coming out of kindergarten and 1st grade.  Ok, I am sort of kidding but what I mean is that, as parents, we receive a blizzard of art.  It’s too much to honor or use in a meaningful way.  As a parent volunteer, I find myself in a mad rush to get the students to complete the artwork before the station/center ends.  They get rushed and have no fun and the quality of the art suffers, all to make sure more art is produced.  Anybody else see a problem here?

Every so often, the kids do a “peak” project.  My daughter just made a five foot long stuffed paper dolphin.  She did the dolphin art; parent volunteers cut the dolphin shape, traced that shape onto the back paper, and stuffed the dolphin.  Therefore, the kids did a picture and, really, the adults made the art.  It’s cool and beautiful, but it isn’t completely “hers.”

I am not sure where the mad rush to create disposable art comes from.  It is easier, I suppose, to make disposable art than to work with the kids on truly meaningful art.  And, true, quantity seems to beat quality for many Americans.  However, in my classroom I will try to only do meaningful exercises, art or otherwise. 

Creating a dolphin from start to finish, painting it (two sides, not one), cutting it out (fine motor skills), stuffing it (different fine motor skills plus judgment about how much paper, where, plus – believe it or not – the structural and learning benefits of stuffing them with near skeletally placed and shaped stuffing) all makes for a truly wonderful, memorable, and celebrate-able project that should deservedly be kept and preserved for “the ages.” 

I think teaching quality by taking the time to do art “right” is a far better lesson for the students than, what, churning out high volumes of low quality art?  Really, what is the benefit of rushing through one (or two) pieces of art a day?  Working for two, three, or more days on one fine piece of art is the same amount of art practice as the same hours spent on disposable art.

Sure, there is need for practice pieces to hone cutting skills or drawing skills or color choices or whatever.  Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be better to do those exercises as “practice” so the students truly have the freedom to experiment, make “mistakes,” and build their skills?  Likewise, in practice art, the adult wouldn’t feel compelled to “help” the student do it “right.”

Yes, for me, art will be “practice” work, identified as such and with a particular intent in mind (e.g. cutting), and periodic “peak” pieces that take multiple days and represent accomplishments and even artistic statements of which the students and their parents can be deservedly proud.  

Here’s to less (disposable) art in the classroom!

Evaluation?, Part Two

I have been thinking about my post yesterday.  I think it is a mistake for me to shy away from evaluations of my classroom and my teaching. 

I got into teaching to stand for something special.  I will bend every effort to excel and to incorporate the best elements of teaching into my practice. When I am evaluated, some combination of three things will happen.  One, the high quality of my work will be seen. Two, the observer will make suggestions that improve my teaching.  Three, I may meet one of these dogmatists I fear and disagree with some or all of the assessment.  These are all outcomes that can only benefit all concerned.

The tricky one is where there is disagreement.  I have always felt a strong pull to comply with authority out of a desire to be accepted and/or a fear of sanction. However, I have also always had strong analytic skills of my own.  Given that the former instinct usually overrode the later, these encounters would frequently leave me feeling violated and, subsequently, acting out against that authority in some covert (and ultimately self-destructive) fashion.

Being slightly wiser these days, my philosophy is different.  Now, I trust that the best thing to do is to stand for my beliefs, regardless of consequences.  This does not mean being stubborn.  I have a strong intent to be open in all aspects of my life.  However, it does mean that I need to stand for my reasoned beliefs.

I will be respectful.  I will be inquisitive.  I will be open to learning and to improvement  However, if, in the end, I disagree with the advice or assessment, I will stand for myself.  It is possible that this will have negative consequences for me and that is ok.  However, if I am respectful, if I demonstrate a willingness to listen and an ability to change if persuaded, and if my arguments are sound, I am comfortable that these discussions will generally end positively.

Rules in Schools

The idea that if a rule does not merit a major consequence, it does not merit being a rule applies in schools too.  Establishing rules that are not enforced or, worse, are only infrequently enforced is more than a waste of energy.  It’s actually counterproductive, accommodating a certain lawlessness that is ultimately corrosive.

I see this in the “Raise your hand” rule too.  It seems to me that students should not be allowed to shout out answers, except in chorus.  It is much too difficult and takes too much management to allow shouting out of answers sometimes but not other times.  However, rare is the teacher who consistently enforces this rule and, therefore, rare is the classroom where shouting out is absent.

In my classroom, non-verbal symbols will be followed with rigor.  Likewise, shouting out will not be tolerated, rewarded, or even occasionally condoned.  The central rule in my classroom will be respect and major violations of that principle will receive quick, firm intervention.  Minor departures from the principle of respect will not be treated as rules violations.  Rather, they will be treated as teaching moments or ignored, as the case may be. 

What will not happen in my classroom is the proclamation and subsequent ongoing violation of rules.  Any rule discovered to be unworthy of consistent enforcement, will be considered unworthy to be a rule.