Discussion series: Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution!


Who Needs Advanced Degrees?

This is one of those education discussions that sends shooting pains through my head. In what other profession would anybody think that advanced degrees are not effective? Should we encourage a shift towards undergraduate medical degree programs, undergraduate lawyers, engineers?

Intuitively, masters degrees have to add value. If that isn’t true, nothing in our world makes any sense. The question we should be asking is why research shows that advanced education doesn’t improve teaching outcomes.

There are three simple answers. The truth probably lies in the intersection of all three.

First, it’s all about incentives. We pay teachers to complete these courses. We don’t pay them to have better outcomes. Why should we be surprised when they take a lot of courses but their results don’t improve?

Second, we should examine the content of the courses. Our educational system is infested with archaic concepts of dubious merit. If we want to teach teachers to be more effective, we have to teach them effective techniques. I am of the mind that teaching is an art and therefore there isn’t one effective way to teach. We need to teach alternatives – but effective alternatives. See Teach Like a Champion and Rafe Esquith for examples of two very different ways to be effective in this century.

Third, we need to look at the educational environment. Look at the pay structure. Look at the benefits structure. Look at the incentives, or lack thereof. Look at opportunities for job satisfaction and personal efficacy. Most importantly, look at what it takes to be a successful teacher. Ask if the environment attracts the people who can do the best job? All too often, teaching is much too much like working at the DMV. Why should we be surprised that the intrinsic motivation of many teachers doesn’t match our aspirations.

Anyway, here’s the article. What do you think?

States’ Costs Skyrocket on Master’s Degree Pay for Teachers

By Stephen Sawchuk on July 17, 2012 2:18 PM
Despite little research supporting the practice, paying teachers for earning advanced degrees continues to cost states billions of dollars—in 2007-08, an estimated $14.8 billion, or 72 percent more than just four years before that, according to a report released today by the Washington-based Center for American Progress.

The report contends that the funding could be better spent on other compensation schemes, such as offering more to teachers in shortage fields, like math or special education; higher salaries to retain the best teachers; or incentives to teachers who take difficult teaching assignments.

Research indicates that, outside the areas of content degrees in math and science, there’s not a lot of evidence to support the idea that advanced degrees make for better teaching. (About 90 percent of the master’s degrees held by teachers are from education programs, the CAP report states.)

The report builds on CAP’s 2009 analysis, which estimated that the degrees cost some $8.6 billion in 2003-04. The study employs much the same methodology—using U.S. Department of Education and National Education Association collected data to compute the average salary increase for earning a master’s and applying that to the average salary figure and total number of teachers. The report’s authors, CAP’s Raegen T. Miller and the Center on Reinventing Public Education’s Marguerite Roza, provide a state-by-state breakdown of the figures.

To read more, go here.

Mr Whiskers

What type of classroom management do you favor? Why? What will you do if your style is different from your master teacher(s)?

I am a firm believer in non-disciplinary approaches to classroom management in a 5th grade classroom. I believe one core contribution I make to my students is teaching them life skills. I believe (a la Alfie Kohn) that punishments and rewards teach selfishness. This is because in a rewards system, a student’s behavior is linked to a student getting stuff, good stuff and bad stuff. Students learn “If I do this, I get that” with little or no link to intrinsic logic. To teach more effective life skills, discipline needs to be internally motivated. This may appear harder than just using external methods, but my experience is external methods don’t actually change behavior. They just moderate it. Instead, I would start day one with teaching Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development and apply that as a template to discussions of behavior in the classroom. I also believe that most misconduct stems from boring and/or irrelevant lessons. My goal would be to make my lessons sufficiently relevant and interesting such that inability to participate in lessons is sufficient incentive to act in a socially responsible manner.


I worry that some students might get diminished by any negative observations. There is that theory about building high self-esteem, after all, and I certainly don’t remember my teachers caring about my self-esteem (and I didn’t like it). However, I’ve found (and read) that this approach is ultimately ineffective. Better is having very high expectations of each student. Sure, it is essential to balance positive comments with discussions of areas needing improvement but even this doesn’t quite work for me. What I have settled on for the moment is to care about the student’s work and reflect to them the strengths they’ve displayed and the areas for further work. I’ve tried hard to build a culture of kaizen (constant improvement) and one that accepts mistakes. “Cherish mistakes,” I’ve taught them, “being wrong is on the road to being right.” What I hope and expect will happen is that they will quickly learn they are working in a safe environment where all feedback is positive whether it highlights areas of strength or weakness.

School Staff

DQ2– What is the importance of building relationships with all school personnel (i.e. custodians, school secretary, librarian, support staff, etc.)?

A school is a VERY cramped environment.  Like a ship, everybody works in tight quarters and is forced together in cooperation regularly.  While teachers spend their days in relative isolation, they are nonetheless connected to the other site personnel.  To function optimally, a teacher needs all the other staff on her side.  Each member of the site team holds keys to smooth success, from lending a screwdriver to working out a snafu with books to navigating an arcane district form.  They also have the power to make things easy or hard.  They are human and consciously or unconsciously respond to how they perceive they are treated.  On a less practical more emotional note, working in a friendly environment beats the alternative by a mile.  The best way to work towards a friendly environment is to be preemptively friendly.  Finally and most importantly, I believe that students learn from our behavior and treating other adults with respect and friendship models not only how they might treat their peers but also how they should behave when they become adults.

Jazz and Blues in the Classroom

Jazz and Blues both have as their origin African musical traditions as filtered through the experience of African-Americans in the late 1800’s and early 20th century.  Both have become important and distinct musical styles.  Jazz has evolved in many different ways, encompassing Dixieland, Swing, several types of Latin Jazz, and, more recently, Acid Jazz.  Blues is its own style as well and heavily influencing other styles such as jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.

Defining characteristics

Jazz is quite hard to define.  A working definition would be that it is “characterized by syncopated rhythms, solo and group improvisation, and a variety of harmonic idioms and instrumental techniques.”   For me, its most important characteristic is the improvisation.  This feature sets it apart from most music and creates a unique and powerful relationship between the performers and the audience.  Each performance is unique, created, if you will, based on those particular circumstances of time, space, and intangible chemistry.  The best jazz creates a sense of danger in that no one knows where the music will go.

Blues is easier to quantify.  It is usually characterized by its unique 12-bar chord progression.

Relevant timeframe and where the movement originated

Jazz and Blues both originate amidst the African-American population of the United States.  Blues emerged in the late 19th Century.  Jazz emerged in the early 1900’s.

A few artists of the time and the effect the artists and/or movement has had on society

Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and B.B. King are all legends of Blues.

Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Dizzy Gillespie are a few of the jazz legends.

According to Tom Bacig, jazz had a “profound effect” on the literary world, the fashion world of the 1920’s, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the status of African Americans.  “For the first time in American history, what was previously considered ‘bottom culture’ rose to the top and became a highly desired commodity in society.”

Why the genre is especially appropriate for incorporation into the elementary school classroom

There are many reasons jazz and blues are especially appropriate to incorporate into elementary school classrooms.  Among these reasons are their tight linkage with African-American history, their important status and uniquely American musical styles, and their intricate and joyous music.

At least one way you might incorporate that music genre into another subject, lesson or activity

Studying jazz is like a master class in music.  It builds on all that came before in innovative and brilliant ways.  To understand jazz is to have better access to many or most other musical styles.  This encourages the teaching of jazz in any music or music appreciation class.

Rather than teaching dry history, each period can be brought to life by accompanying it with the art, music, and dance of the period.  From the Civil War to Reconstruction to WWI to the Roaring 20’s to the Swing Era to the 60’s and beyond, there is music from these styles that give life to common experience of the era.  For example, whether in economics or history, understanding of the Roaring 20’s is not complete without a sense of the (jazz) music of that era.  Without jazz, the Roaring 20’s do not roar.

The intricate beauty and complexity of jazz is salubrious for brains of any age.  I believe in using background music whenever appropriate.  Like baroque and classical in general, I believe students find it simultaneously relaxing and supportive of contemplation.

Virtual Art Museum, Virtual Art?

I note that navigation, at Google Art project or elsewhere, seems to be a ubiquitous problem. I can say from personal experience that the technology exists to do virtual museum with full free movement through the horizontal space. For the moment it would seem that this would not be a web-based game but rather a download. It would be possible to mod existing engines, like Valve’s Source engine, for free or make one using any of several different 3D engines available for licensing.

Another question is what effect this type of access would have on the world? Pretty clearly it would be good for students and teachers of all ages. This kind of full access from home would simultaneously drop the barriers to art viewing to nearly zero and make this possible across geographic distances that would otherwise restrict access to the elite who can afford the trip. The democratic aspects of this are marvelous.

However, like all free internet stuff, it is not immediately clear whether this is positive for anybody except the consumer. Are visitors more or less likely to visit actual museums in a world of instantaneous virtual access? Do museums require revenues from visitors or are they generally endowed by “patrons” who support any kind of exposure of art? What of books containing artwork? Will people buy expensive coffee table art books when they can download (or “collect”) art online for free – especially since many purchases are in the museum store after an inspirational visit?

Most interesting, what art will emerge from this new virtual world? It stands to reason that virtual museums might well host virtual art – art that doesn’t exist except in virtual space. For sure, most of that art will be terrible and derivative to begin with (Mona Lisa with a goatee). But I have no doubt that, in time, art will emerge that is either or both wonderful and/or a brilliant use of virtual opportunities to make art. A criticism could be made that art made virtually is not “real” and therefore not art. However, these days, for example, most sculptors don’t “make” their art. They make blueprints and construction teams or metal specialists to make the actual art for them. If that is “art,” then, I would argue, so is this (whatever “this” turns out to be).

How’s this for an art project for tech savvy older students: visit a virtual art museum and them create a piece of virtual art. The professional tools to do this are not cheap but they are not expensive in the scope of school budgets (at least in normal years). There are free downloadable tools like Blender and Google Sketchup that might provide a starting point. Younger children can share this experience with results commensurate to their age.

See You in Seven Days…

Constructivist education is about helping the students to construct their own knowledge. We do this is in many ways. We give them group or individual projects, short and long term, which they work to master based on their own skills, class materials, and prior knowledge. We, the teachers, guide them with Socratic Questioning to discover pieces their missing. We monitor their independent work, formally an informally, and choose when to help and when to allow short-term failure.

The arts are as amenable as any discipline to constructivism. If students are “taught” art, as I was, it easily becomes unenrolling dogma or, worse, noise. Art at its core is the artist representing meaning and emotional truths in his or her medium. These need to be received by each student individually, with them finding the emotions truths of the art for themselves. Likewise, to be an artist requires the practice of creating art independently.

These methods and skills need to be practiced and used in the classroom but they cannot be limited to the classroom. In fact, they are well suited to independent, overnight pursuit. Giving a student time alone to ponder, experiment, contemplate, and practice is incredibly valuable.

Being sick this week, I laid in bed and to pass the time I watched TED Talks. One of those talks was given by Evelyn Glennie, famous for being one of the world’s greatest percussionists and almost completely deaf. Here is a story she told that demonstrates the value of independent practice beautifully… and the inauthenticy of drills for good measure:

“I remember my teacher. When I first started, my very first lesson, I was all prepared with sticks, ready to go. And instead of him saying, ‘OK, Evelyn, please. Feet slightly apart, arms at a more-or-less 90-degree angle, sticks in a more-or-less V shape, keep this amount of space here, et cetera. Please keep your back straight, et cetera et cetera et cetera.’ Where I was probably just going to end up absolutely rigid, frozen, and I would not be able to strike the drum, because I was thinking of so many other things. He said, ‘Evelyn, take this drum away for seven days, and I’ll see you next week.’

So, heavens! What was I to do? I no longer required the sticks, I wasn’t allowed to have these sticks. I had to basically look at this particular drum, see how it was made, what these little lugs did, what the snares did. Turned it upside down, experimented with the shell, experimented with the head. Experimented with my body, experimented with jewelry, experimented with all sorts of things. And of course, I returned with all sorts of bruises and things like that — but nevertheless, it was such an unbelievable experience, because then, where on Earth are you going to experience that in a piece of music? Where on Earth are you going to experience that in a study book? So we never, ever dealt with actual study books.”

She continues, “So for example, one of the things that we learn when we are dealing with being a percussion player, as opposed to a musician, is basically straightforward single stroke rolls…. And interestingly, the older I became, when I became a full-time student at a so called ‘music institution,’ all of that went out of the window. We had to study from study books. And constantly, the question, well, why? Why? What is this relating to? I need to play a piece of music. ‘Oh, well, this will help your control!’ Well, how? Why do I need to learn that? I need to relate it to a piece of music. You know. I need to say something”

Independent practice is a crucial part of constructivist education.

Field with Flowers near Arles

I love this painting for both its volatility, even recklessness, and the beauty of the result.  I love it for the fact that it hides these contradictions, leaving them to be discovered with careful viewing and a reading of history.  I love the complexity of the seemingly simple composition.  The flowers, the fields, the trees, the buildings and the sky are each portrayed differently and offer unique rewards for exploration and contemplation.  There seems to be a message too, looking from the flowers to the fields to the town – all under a crude and powerful sky.  Is he thinking about nature versus human settlements or the attractiveness of those human settlements as seen from a distance and from a field of flowers?  What of his violent, crude sky?  Is he thinking of a primal and all seeing God looking down on his pitiful struggles for peace and beauty?  All this is made far more poignant knowing that within the year he would cut part of his ear off, be hospitalized for depression, and flee Arles for Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. Within two years he would be dead.