Reforming Education: The Problem of Constructing Knowledge in an Age of Information

[text of speech delivered April 13, 2013 at the Global Health and Humanitarian Summit 2013 at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia]

The age of digital technology has radically changed the way we interact with information, but has not fundamentally changed the way we learn.  Educational institutions are struggling to reconcile traditional instructional goals with new technology, when actually the goals themselves should be realigned with the needs of a modern technologically-centered society.  Information is no longer precious, but the ability to make sense of it is more important than ever.

The most ancient form of education provides a key for learning how to distill knowledge from the ocean of data available in our hand-held devices.

Ten thousand years ago, a group of humans sat around a fire, telling stories.  For this small band of hunter-gatherers, storytelling was an art form, a means of entertainment, and a social activity.  The stories conveyed important information – cautionary tales to convey warnings and advice about the successful navigation of life’s dangers; heroic adventures to spark the imagination and stir aspirations; stories about interpersonal conflict to explore the nature of human emotions and to validate the social boundaries recognized by the group.

Stories were education; they promoted intellectual and emotional development as well as social cohesion.  They allowed people to travel beyond their immediate surroundings to share in the experiences of others.  Stories also gave people a conceptual framework for abstract ideas that may have been introduced by others, but were capable of being expanded and refined by anyone who chose to engage with them.

Stories were the original educational system, and their form is so familiar to us today that not only are they still an effective mode of communication, but they have the power to educate us while lulling us into the belief that we are simply being entertained.  No matter what part of the world we are in, no matter what cultural standards apply, no matter the age of the people involved or formal education they may have had, stories are an intrinsic part of how we communicate.  Stories are fundamental to how we learn.

Stories facilitate learning in nearly every field.  In physics, the properties of matter and the laws of motion make sense to us in real-world examples of objects moving through space.  In the biological sciences, the different characteristics of organisms make sense to us as we consider how these organisms behave over time.  In mathematics, the wonderful power of precise numbers to describe phenomena in the real world can only be fully appreciated with an imprecise description rendered in everyday language.

In the humanities, the examples are even more obvious.  The study of literature revolves around stories and explores their structure and effect upon the reader.  Economics, which leans heavily upon numbers to prove its assertions, nevertheless requires narrative to explain its analysis of behavior.  Psychology bases its theory and practices on client narratives.

In medicine, the ability to interpret patients’ stories is essential to effective treatment.  Rarely are symptoms experienced as bulleted points on a list.  They exist in the patient’s mind as a part of the pattern of their lives, an interruption in the status quo that makes sense only in the context of the story of life as it is normally lived.  Diagnosis often requires the medical professional to wade into the patient’s narrative without preconceptions and without a checklist, to take the patient’s experiences at face value and apply medical expertise and insight to identifying the problem.

Stories are the most ancient formula for communicating important ideas, and yet understanding the power of stories and their capacity for education is more important than ever in this – the information age.

In an age when information is so easy to acquire through the internet, stories can provide a framework for constructing knowledge into a useful form.

As a history teacher, I have many times encountered people who told me, “I don’t like history,” or “history is so boring.”  And yet I know that the non-fiction bestseller lists are made up of biographies and self-help books full of personal success stories.  People love a good story, but almost all of us dislike the way history is taught in school – as discrete bits of information that we have little reason to care about.  It is easy to miss the connection.  The internet provides an opportunity – not just for students to learn the connection, but to create it – to construct knowledge from the raw material of information.

20 years ago, when I began my career in education, schools were just beginning to be outfitted with computer labs.  15 years ago, the high school where I taught prohibited students from having cell phones at school.  For the last five years, smart phones with internet access have become increasingly common, to the point of being standard.  A few weeks ago, I asked a class of 8th graders in a suburban Atlanta middle school how many of them had cell phones in their possession.  Every student in the room raised a hand.

As technology has become more commonplace, access to the internet and to the ocean of information it contains has become almost universal.  We used to teach students how to conduct research on the computer.  Now they come to class more expert in surfing the web than almost any member of the faculty.

But the kind of information they are finding and the process they are using for discovering it is new, and this process arises from an entirely new paradigm for creating knowledge.  It is time to take a hard look at what we think we know about knowledge.

It’s not like it was in the old days.

It once was that we could make sense of the world by attributing everything that was unexplainable to a divine plan. For the more agnostic or pagan among us, we could attribute it all to forces of nature.  We might be able to glimpse the beauty of the design, the majesty of the forces at play, but we could not expect to fully understand the how and why of everything we experienced.

And yet there is a natural human desire to explain the things we encounter in life.  So we built elaborate belief systems constructed from uncritical observations of the natural world, folklore and faith.

This began to change in the Western world with the scientific revolution.  We began to observe the natural world with a critical eye, accumulate facts without immediately ascribing explanation, and to assemble what we learned into theories that were independent of belief systems.  It was a new way to acquire knowledge – constructing it from empirical evidence.

Under this new system, independent scientists, university professors, and industry-sponsored researchers all worked to uncover factual evidence and develop theories.  Academics, technicians, and practitioners in an infinite number of fields tested the application of the new knowledge.  Books and journals reported the knowledge to the world where it was disseminated through libraries and textbooks.

The scientific method allowed for the expansion of the body of knowledge, but also acted as a filter to eliminate information that did not pass its rigorous tests.  This was an essential function for any authority that governs information – and for a very practical reason.

For most of human history, there were natural limits to how much new information a society could handle.  Whether information was based on faith and folklore or based on the scientific method, a selection process had to occur.  There were only so many new books that could be published in any one year.  There was only so much new material a library could absorb.

But it’s not like that any more.  Information is everywhere.  Thanks to the internet, there is no longer a practical limit on what can be published to the world. Peer-reviewed articles are available alongside user-edited sites such as Wikipedia.  Crackpot opinions are just as easily accessible as rigorously tested knowledge.

By eliminating the technological and logistical constraints on the amount of new knowledge that can be produced, the established selection process has become irrelevant as a limitation on public access to information.

And not only is the information available vastly expanded, but also the process for discovering knowledge has changed.  The fact that a single short article on the internet can contain dozens of links to other sources, and each of these sources can contain potentially hundreds more, means that the search for information has no natural boundaries.

As a result of the extraordinarily rapid change in the way we access information, the way we learn is also changing.  This constitutes an alteration of behavior for those of us who grew up reading books and accepting the lines of demarcation between professionally edited works and off-the cuff essays, between authoritative sources and amateur self-appointed experts, even between the boundaries that separate different academic disciplines.  But for the generation that has grown up with the internet as their main source of information, the emerging new paradigm is all they have known.

The fact is that we live in a period of transition.  We continue to accept as authoritative the kind of expert opinion that is published in scholarly works, but we also acknowledge the validity of information produced in an entirely different way.

Universities and government agencies may assemble groups of experts to study specific issues and solve highly technical problems, but crowd-sourcing on the internet allows for a larger and more diverse group of participants to contribute, sometimes with ideas that never would have occurred to professionals committed to their own particular lines of inquiry.

Scholarly works are still published that distill mountains of research and data into thoroughly annotated and well-supported conclusions, but now it is possible on the internet to link this supporting evidence so that anyone who wishes to do so can read the data and come to their own conclusions.

New technology allows for a different, far broader kind of interactivity.  This is changing the way we think about new information.  Books promote deep thinking.  The internet promotes free association.

Books – and for that matter, stories in traditional form – are sequential.  They begin at a logical starting point and proceed, including the information that the author has decided will lead the reader most directly towards a logical conclusion.  By necessity, because of limitations on space and conventions of form, books must exclude relevant information.  In fact, information that does not propel us forward seems like an unwanted distraction.

By contrast, the internet allows for us to drop in on a body of information, follow a thread for as long as it holds our interest, then jump off at a point where a new thread appears to be more productive.  The internet reader discovers his or her own conclusion – or simply surfs around, absorbing information methodically but reaching no articulable conclusion.

The new technology, and the new ways that we are interacting with information, are creating a challenge for the education establishment.

Traditionally, we have recognized a specific body of knowledge that one must master in order to be considered a well-educated person.  This body of knowledge can be divided and parceled out to different courses in school where it can be taught and tested and checked off as students progress through the years towards a diploma.

All of the material to be taught and tested is published in bullet point form.  For example:

Georgia Performance Standard SSUSH 8 a.  Explain how slavery became a significant issue in American politics; include the slave rebellion of Nat Turner and the rise of abolitionism (William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglas, and the Grimke sisters).

Here is a topic with expansive opportunities for research and rich potential for insights into the nature of American politics, the ethical questions of human bondage, the dynamics of social reform movements, the role of violence shaping public opinion, race relations, gender politics … the list could go on and on.  But the students who take U.S. History in the state of Georgia had better be ready for that multiple choice question on the Grimke sisters or there will be trouble.

The problem should be obvious, and it’s not that it is necessarily a bad thing to know about all the items on that bulleted list.  It is not just that preparing for multiple-choice tests is not a very practical a way to prepare for life after school.  It is that the world of knowledge has so much more to offer, and the really valuable life skill is to know how to navigate through that world and derive from it useful conclusions.

In this age of information without boundaries, of data that is too voluminous to grasp, an educated person cannot possibly know all there is to know.  At the same time, having an outside body determine what is important and what is not – for instance that one should know about the Grimke sisters, but need not know about Theodore Dwight Weld – places an artificial limitation on learning that is destructive to the cause of education, and wastes the opportunity that the internet offers. The truly valuable experience is learning how to discriminate – having access to more information than one can use and selecting what is most valuable to make sense of the rest.

Students must learn how to construct a model that is consistent with the information available.  This model does not need to represent the only possible way to organize the facts, but it does need to be one that incorporates the facts into a cohesive account that can be communicated to others.  In the field of history, this would be an account of past events based upon authoritative sources, and told in the form of – a story.

Stories have characters and setting.  Stories have a plot, with exposition, rising action, a climax, falling action, and resolution.  Students must make choices about how to select historical facts to fill out these familiar features.

Stories have a conflict.  In real life, conflicts often have many sources and evolving points of origin.  But history students must look at the available facts and decide where to begin their story, and how to resolve the conflict within the framework of the story – if indeed a resolution is possible.

Each of the choices the student makes in constructing the story represents an act of higher-order thinking. Every fact included in the story can be linked to one or more sources, demonstrating competence in research skills and understanding of how the network of information available online can be utilized to support a conclusion.

We have been teaching history students information in bullet point form.  We need to teach them how to be experts in the use of information, and the question of whether a student is proficient in the use of information cannot be answered on a multiple-choice test.

If we are to have high-stakes testing, we must assess real-life skills that will be essential to success in this century.  That means teaching and testing proficiency in using the internet to harvest useful information. And while information can be used in an infinite variety of ways, the time-tested, universally recognized narrative form provides a natural structure for students to use in demonstrating what they have learned.  This is certainly true in the discipline of history.  I believe the same principle applies in other fields of study as well.


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The loaded canon

“My child came out of high school knowing more about Harriet Tubman than about James Madison,” said my highly agitated neighbor.  “The teacher had them read Howard Zinn, but none of the opposing points of view.”

My neighbor was responding to an opinion piece I wrote that appeared in the local newspaper a few weeks ago.  I had decried the trend in education towards standardization, while suggesting that it is less important in the 21st century for students to know the same things than it is for them to become discriminating consumers of information.  My neighbor feels that it is a serious problem for kids to graduate from school with large gaps in their knowledge of important concepts and events in our civic history.

For parents of school-age children, dissatisfaction with public education is the great equalizer.  Some schools fail in providing resources, some lack in discipline, some provide discipline at the expense of instruction, some provide inadequate instruction, some offer appropriate content but the design of the instruction is so lacking that students are essentially denied an education.  But regardless of the particulars, regardless of the socioeconomic environment in which the school operates, regardless of the expectations of students’ families, conscientious parents know that public schools could do better.  On that we all seem to agree.

And we should be dissatisfied with our schools.  There is far more at stake in education than in any other publicly funded program.  Those of us with children are obviously concerned about our own loved ones’ welfare, but all of us should be concerned with the way the next generation is being prepared to assume an active role in shaping society.

I am dissatisfied with the state of public education.  I happen to agree with my neighbor that understanding the contributions of James Madison is important.  He was a visionary, instrumental in the creation of a government that operates under the rule of law while remaining flexible enough to adapt itself to changing times.  Madison’s legacy can be an effective means to understanding key concepts in American self-government.  I believe my neighbor and I agree that students must have information they can use to make sense of the world.  I’m just not sure that there is only one way to give students what they need.

Traditionally, American history textbooks have adopted an approach to teaching that emphasizes the virtues of American civic values and highlights the achievements of American heroes.  For most of the life of our nation, the canon of American history has been a kind of roll call of presidents and generals with great deeds and sterling character traits thrown in to support their inclusion.  Impressive and occasionally stirring, this version of history makes quite a fuss over phrases like “we the people” while focusing all its attention on the actions of a few in the political or economic elite.

While many voices have offered alternative points of view over the years, in recent decades, Howard Zinn’s bestselling book A People’s History of the United States has been particularly influential for many classroom teachers.  Zinn barely mentions the familiar roster of names – Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, et al.  He focuses on the stories of those who shaped the country from positions of disadvantage – Indians, slaves, immigrants, the working poor, women.  Many of these stories illustrate the shortcomings of the American promise of equal opportunity, but also stand as examples of heroic courage against adversity.  For years as a high school history teacher, I used excerpts from Zinn’s book to supplement textbooks that glossed over the experiences of the millions who persevered against long odds in the “land of opportunity.”

In recent years, the trend in history education has been to focus a bit more on the diversity of the American people and thus touch on some of the experiences of being disadvantaged in a country that prides itself on equality.  There are a number of reasons for this change.  Perhaps the most significant are the increasing sensitivity of policymakers and textbook writers to the growing diversity in the country itself, and the desire on the part of educators to engage students with stories about people other than the usual cast of “dead white males.”

But rather than constituting a radical kind of reform in the way we teach, this infusion of new characters into the pantheon of heroes is accomplishing little more than adding a few ingredients to an innately bland concoction.

The problem is rooted in the fact that the traditional history curriculum has revolved around stories about heroes – but real life is more complex than that. Lincoln the hero may be used to represent the government (finally) exercising its moral authority by ending slavery, but Lincoln the man was a cunning political operative who was effective because he kept his own morality in check except where it advanced his political agenda.  Still, the hero story works because Lincoln was in a position of power.  He had an impact because he used the system to good effect.  His story both ennobles the man and reinforces the idea that ultimately the system works.

These new characters, such as Harriet Tubman, are being used to play the roles formerly occupied by the powerful and well-connected.  But Tubman was, under the established rules of her time, a criminal.  Certainly she was a hero to many in her lifetime and even more since, but at the very least she was a different kind of hero, whose story brings into question the very institutions that traditional history courses have celebrated.  For her, the system did not work.  By aiding in the escape of slaves, she was repeatedly violating the law and contributing to the escalation of tensions that led to the bloodiest war this country has ever fought. Let’s set aside the issue of whether her actions were morally justified – most modern students of history would agree without hesitation that they were – and consider some of the other far more interesting issues that her story raises.

What is our responsibility as individuals when confronted with a state of affairs that is both immoral and protected by the law?  What recourse is available when the rule of law is inflexible?  At what point do we abandon reliance on the political system to solve problems and act to take matters into our own hands.  How do we choose between personal safety and dangerous action undertaken in defense of others?  How do we reconcile ourselves to the probability that aiding some will put others in harm’s way?  What does it say about our country that a person who would once have been considered an outlaw is now presented as a hero?  What does it say about how history itself is reconsidered with the passage of time?

Because life, and therefore history, consists of so many stories with untidy details and open-ended questions, teachers and students have an incredible opportunity to explore issues that matter, and which go far beyond the celebration of American institutions and values that has been the substance of traditional history courses.  But by and large, educators are not seizing this opportunity.  And so instead of questioning the intellectual content of our children’s education, we are left debating whether ignoring Madison to spend more class time with Tubman is a good trade-off.

The canon of knowledge we expect our children to learn in school is loaded with political messages.  It is time we recognize that if we leave the selection of knowledge up to others, we will always be subject to being either misled or dissatisfied or both.  As long as we are content to teach history as a parade of heroes, the only question is whom do we want our children to admire.  The real questions should involve why we admire the actions that we do and what we ourselves would do if our principles were put to the test.  What we learn is just the first step on the path to discovering how to use the knowledge we have gained.

The Op-Ed piece referenced above can be found at:   



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Guns are extracurricular

It is sad, really, the frequency with which gun violence forces its way into our national consciousness.  Whether it is mass murder on a college campus, in a shopping center in Arizona, in a crowded movie theater, at a place of worship, or at an elementary school, the spectacular injustice of wholesale slaughter has become a familiar story.  It is a recurring theme of our national narrative.

The sadness of the situation is double-edged.  On one side is the personal tragedy endured by the victims and those who love them.  This is a sadness mixed with grief and anger at the unfairness of it all.  On the other side is the recognition that our collective horror is by now numbed by the familiarity of the story.  This is a sadness that comes from helplessness.  We are lost, and there is no clear signpost leading us to a place of safety.

The voices that emerge in the wake of these tragedies are familiar.  We hear calls for vengeance, prayers for the victims, and loud trumpeting for reforms that will prevent this from ever happening again.  We also hear the somber voices of the status quo, telling us that the worst thing we can do is to overreact and infringe on Americans’ right to bear arms.

In the state of Georgia, our legislature, which has convened for its annual session this year in the chilly aftermath of the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, may consider another kind of reaction.

House Bill 35 would allow for public school administrators to possess and carry firearms while on school property, at a school function, or on a school bus.  This proposed law would allow for specific school office workers to carry loaded weapons anywhere within the “school safety zone.”

There are a lot of potent and provocative arguments in favor of and against gun control.  There are many theories as to why the United States seems so addicted to gun violence, and a correspondingly large number of theories on what should be done about it.  I am content to allow others to parse the constitutional issues for the solution to this dilemma.  My concern here is the impact of training professional educators to serve as armed guards – on students and on the educators themselves.  This proposed policy raises serious questions about the role of school in teaching children how to cope with violence in our society.

As a teacher and a parent, as an individual concerned with education policy and the way schools interact with society at large, I see these kinds of moments as tests of our institutions’ ability to deal with the extraordinary and horrific.

When the shooting at Sandy Hook occurred, my children came home from school talking about it.  One brought home an anxious and sincere letter from his school’s principal.  Both of them seemed to understand that something dire had occurred, but there was a curious disconnection between their reaction and the fear experienced by the adults.  Adults are swept up by their imagination – what would I do if this happened to my family?  They are capable of being stunned by the news because they remember when such things were exceptional if not unthinkable.  To the kids, these incidents are practically a regular part of life – not unlike the many other aspects of the world that they are too young to experience personally, but are assured by adults to be normal and natural.

What does it say to impressionable young people that episodes of mass murder are regularly in the news?  What message does it convey when one man snuffs out the lives of innocent children, and people rush to defend his right to possess the tools he used to commit this atrocity.  At an age when children are developing their ideas about how the world works, what ideas are natural consequences of such an event?

What is the message if children now see their principal patrolling the halls with a sidearm strapped to his leg?  Will they feel protected, or will they feel the fear of an impending incident?  Even if panic is not the result, how can they fail to see that the principal’s answer to the threat of danger will be deadly force?  What attitude does this teach about how to deal with adversity?

School officials should not carry guns.  The remote possibility that these guns would actually prevent physical harm to anyone is vastly outweighed by the significant psychological harm that would occur.  School administrators are authority figures and role models for our children.  To communicate that any part of their authority comes from a firearm is to send a very unhealthy message to the children of this country.


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Learning one step at a time

In Atlanta, Georgia, there is an organization known as Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety, Inc. (PEDS) that advocates on behalf of pedestrians who are trying to navigate through the heavily trafficked streets of that large metropolitan area.  Atlanta is typical of the American cities that saw explosive growth in the 20th century.  Its pattern of development and roadway design was dictated by concerns about automotive traffic flow, not the needs or the safety concerns of pedestrians.

PEDS works with government entities and civic groups to make crosswalks more numerous, more visible, and better-designed.  It advocates for better sidewalks and supports pedestrian-friendly real estate developments.  It stages media events calculated to draw attention to pedestrian safety.

One of the most successful of these events involves coordinating media coverage of the police enforcing laws governing crosswalk safety.  For several hours, with camera crews from local TV news programs looking on, a plain-clothed police officer uses a crosswalk and several of his brother and sister officers ticket motorists who violate section 40-6-91 of the Georgia Code.  Those motorists who fail to allow a pedestrian to pass under the guidelines described in Georgia law are subject to a substantial fine.

Most of the motorists pulled over seem to have no idea what they did that was wrong.  They soon find out.  And the learning experience is not limited to the ticketed drivers.  Thanks to television news and the internet, video of the operation is widely disseminated to help with the education of others.

But it’s an uphill battle.  Most drivers don’t worry about traffic enforcement because the odds of being charged with speeding, following too close, or crosswalk violations are so very small.  The lessons for those who are caught and punished – and for those who witness it – may be long-lasting, but for the rest of us, there is little incentive to change our ways.

For the rest of us – the majority of drivers – life experience tells us that traffic laws are for the unlucky few.  Self-interest inclines us towards driving faster and more aggressively.  We don’t consider the possibility that travel would be a more pleasant experience if we all slowed down and exercised some courtesy.  We all depend on safety when we travel – whether by car or on foot – but even when we recognize this reality, we usually don’t feel empowered to change the environment we live in every day.

An analogy to formal education is fairly obvious.  Children engage in a tug-of-war with authority as they grow up.  It is a natural way for them to explore the boundaries that define their lives.  In an institutional setting such as a school, challenging authority and disrupting the established order can seriously impact the kind of environment that is conducive to learning.  But students in school know that obeying the rules is required only if there is a certain and immediate consequence for breaking the rules.  In a disorderly classroom, patterns of disruptive behavior become the norm.

When disorder and selfish behavior are the standard by which we live, it is easy to overlook the fact that the conventional way, the obvious way, is often not the best way.

For a teacher in school, playing the role of enforcer, perpetually on patrol for bad conduct, it is a waste of expertise better utilized in opening minds. In addition, it is a terrible misallocation of time and talent – both of teacher and students.  It is a poisoning of the atmosphere that is necessary for learning.

For the police, traffic enforcement is an enormous uphill battle.  There are not nearly enough officers on the street.  Drivers routinely violate laws, even when they are aware of what the laws require.   It is dangerous for everyone, and yet so many of us accept the situation with resignation because, well, that’s just the way it is.

How does one combat problems that are so widespread as to be ingrained in our society?  Ultimately, it comes down to changing perceptions of self-interest.  We all need an environment in which we can feel safe and accomplish what we need to do in our lives.

Students who are disruptive in school are often not really trying to take control of the class, they are just trying to test the limits of their own power, their own authority.  They are trying to learn – maybe not the lesson the teacher had planned, but still a valid goal for a child in the process of self-discovery.  Ideally, a good teacher can find ways to engage them in a manner that allows them to see the value in cooperation, and the power they can exercise to keep their environment orderly and geared towards progress towards their goals.

Drivers who speed and ignore safety considerations are generally not trying to create danger or dictate traffic patterns.  Often they are just doing what they believe they have to do to get to and from work.  They need to realize – and let me take some ownership of this problem – we need to realize that we all share the roads, and we are all pedestrians once we get out of the car.  Is it possible to extend a message of altruistic behavior to the vast sprawling “community” of drivers around the world?  Perhaps not.  Maybe the best we can do is to break off a little piece of the problem at a time by ticketing some drivers for crosswalk violations and showing it on TV.  But just because we are taking on a piece of the problem and not the whole thing does not mean the act is inconsequential.

I was once at a meeting at a school where a parent expressed concern about some bullying that had been reported among the 5th grade boys.  Another parent rose to say, (in all seriousness, I think) “The first step is to stop people from getting into wars every time their leaders have a problem with another country; then getting kids to stop bullying each other will be easy.”

Yeah, well, making the world a better place is a worthy goal, but whether it is in a classroom, on a crosswalk, on in the realm of international relations, I think we can all feel okay about taking things one step at a time.

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The information winnow is now open

Information has changed. It’s not like it was in the old days.

It once was that we could make sense of the world by attributing everything that was unexplainable to a divine plan. For the more agnostic or pagan among us, we could attribute it all to forces of nature. We might be able to glimpse the beauty of the design, the majesty of the forces at play, but we could not expect to fully understand the how and why of everything we experienced. Still, there is a natural human desire to account for the things we encounter in life. So we built elaborate belief systems constructed from uncritical observations of the natural world, folklore and faith.

This began to change in the Western world with the scientific revolution. Now we began to observe the natural world with a critical eye, accumulate facts without immediately ascribing explanation, and to assemble what we learned into theories that were independent of belief systems. It was a new way to acquire knowledge – constructing it from evidence. Both the evidence and the resulting theories could be tested. New evidence could be discovered, new theories could be developed, and existing knowledge could be modified – all grounded not on faith but on a methodology.

Knowledge was based upon facts, upon a body of verifiable evidence. And along with this new source of knowledge had come a process for producing and verifying it. Independent scientists, university professors, and industry-sponsored researchers all worked to uncover factual evidence and develop theories. Academics, technicians, and practitioners in an infinite number of fields tested the application of the new knowledge. Books and journals reported the knowledge to the world where it was disseminated through libraries and textbooks. The process acted like a sifting funnel – beginning with a potentially infinite amount of information on every conceivable subject and winnowed down as data was processed into knowledge, examined by a battery of experts and reduced finally to become a new contribution to an authoritative body of scientifically derived wisdom.

The scientific method allowed for the expansion of the body of knowledge, but also acted as a filter to eliminate information that did not pass its rigorous tests. This was an essential function for any authority that governs information – and for a very practical reason. For most of human history, there were natural limits to how much new information a society could handle. Some form of discrimination was required to decide what was valid knowledge and what was not. Since the scientific revolution there has been broad agreement that knowledge should be grounded in verifiable facts. But whether information was based on faith and folklore or based on the scientific method, a selection process had to occur. There were only so many new books that could be published in any one year. There was only so much new material a library could absorb.

But it’s not like that any more. Information is everywhere. Thanks to the internet, there is no longer a practical limit on what can be published to the world. Peer-reviewed articles are available alongside user-edited sites such as Wikipedia. Rigorously tested knowledge is just as easily accessible as crackpot opinions. By eliminating the technological and logistical constraints on the amount of new knowledge that can be produced, the established selection process has become irrelevant as a limitation on public access to information.

This new reality has enormous consequences for education. Should we cling to the method that produced authoritative knowledge in the recent past, or should we embrace the reality that we now have access to an ocean of information that was produced without being submitted to any consistent winnowing process at all? Today’s students are swimming in this ocean already. What shall we teach them?


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Empathy in learning

Empathy is the ability to understand on an intuitive level how another is feeling, the attitude that person has toward his or her experiences, or the intellectual framework that shapes what the other is thinking.  Empathy of a form of communication that does not rely on words, and often serves as the medium for information that cannot be effectively reduced to words.  It is different from sympathy, which is simply a harmony of feelings, or more specifically the feeling of compassion for another who is in distress.  Empathy is a type of bonding between people that engenders trust and enables further and deeper communication.

In the art of teaching and learning, empathy is essential and is at the same time vexing.  In traditional education, we pass information through words – carefully constructed expressions of abstract concepts, time-honored formulations of big ideas, lessons for life rendered on the canvas of our common language.  We teach history through written records.  We teach science and math through problem-solving experiences, but in the end this quest for answers is described in very concrete terminology.  When we teach literature, we explore the artistry of words – the power of these everyday fixtures of our lives to move us beyond the everyday to a different plane.  But empathy exists on a different plane, and it does not rely on the power of words to take us there.  Empathy is not subject to grading rubrics and cannot be measured on standardized tests.  Yet its presence in human interactions may make the difference between real learning and forced compliance.

Learning is an interactive experience, and it can occur strictly between the learner and a body of information.  But humans are social creatures, and schools are public forums.  Furthermore, even in the case of solitary, self-directed learning, our motivations are often shaped by our relationships with others, and by our anticipation of future interactions with others.

The two most recent posts on this site (Learning from trust, A safe place to learn) have been about the importance of empathy in the school setting.  In the stories conveyed in those posts, the message is that a teacher who establishes a level of trust and common purpose with his students is far better able to reach these learners on an intellectual level.  But it is not enough to recognize empathy as a kind of gateway into more effective instruction.  Empathy not only facilitates communication, it is communication.

We understand each other not just through words, but also through the rhythm and pauses between those words, through actions, through facial expressions.  We form first impressions.  Sometimes cultural context or social programming causes us to react to superficial appearances more quickly, but very soon other signals come into focus.  There is a vast unspoken vocabulary of gesture.  A person may lie and get away with it in writing, but doing so face-to-face is not nearly as easy.  In appeals of the verdict in criminal trials, lawyers may argue that a judge’s rulings were incorrect as a matter of law, but may not argue that the jury was wrong in forming its opinion about the witnesses’ testimony.  It is a well-established principle that the only people qualified to judge whether or not a witness was telling the truth are the people who were in the room who could hear the tone of the voice and see the look in the eye.

Understanding others leads to greater understanding of ourselves.  It enables us to see the world through eyes and ears that have a different vantage point, and yet we can grasp the meaning of what another perceives.  Empathizing with success allows us to enjoy the thrill of another’s victory.  Empathizing with fear allows us to share in the emotion, but also enables us to offer ways to cope with it.  Empathy allows us a broader experience with life, and ties us more closely to the fabric of human society.

Teaching and learning is a shared human experience.  The quality of that shared experience can determine the quality of the learning.

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A safe place to learn

There are times when a teacher has to learn some things about his students before he can know what to teach them. Sometimes students will tell the teacher that what he teaches is less important than how he teaches.

In a middle school class at a private school where I had my first teaching job, there was a student who seemed especially eager to please. This girl, whom I will call “Karen,” was attentive in class when her friends were preoccupied with chattering about the manufactured drama in their social circle. She offered to help clean up the room after class was over. Unlike a lot of kids her age she was openly friendly to teachers when she encountered them around campus.

In this nontraditional school, there was no guarantee that all of my students had arrived in my class with the same background knowledge or skills. I did a lot of guesswork. I also invented assignments that were designed to reveal what areas they were proficient in and the areas where they needed help.

One assignment I gave the class was 2-3 page paper that required some historical research in order to answer a fairly straightforward question. This was an eighth grade social studies class, and so I tried to keep my expectations reasonable considering their age and limited familiarity with research methodology. I tried to teach the skills I expected they would need, and I modeled a good answer to the type of question I was asking. But my primary purpose in making the assignment was not to assess how well they had learned what I had taught them, it was for me to learn what they could do well and what I would need to teach them.

As I read the papers that were turned in, I noticed that there was a significant range in the quality of the students’ work. I was faced with every teacher’s quandary – how am I going to help the students who seem not to understand at all what to do, while moving forward with the students who met, or even exceeded my expectations?

Most of the differences among the papers fell into predictable categories, and as I read the papers, I categorized them and formulated plans for addressing their deficiencies.

Some students were very weak in providing the kind of information they should have gotten from research. I noted that I could teach research skills. Some students did not organize their papers very well – a few seemed never to have been exposed to the idea of using different paragraphs to discuss different topics. But I could teach outlining and structure. Some students did not have an impressive command of language – their choice of words, their phrasing of sentences, revealed an awkwardness in writing that was not evident in their spoken expression. I could do some things to help here as well. Studying history is parsing meaning from someone else’s writing, and learning to write more fluidly makes one a more critical and astute reader.

Karen’s paper did not fit in any neat category. First of all, it was beautiful in appearance. She had drawn an illustration for the cover, and bound the paper on the left side. Inside, there was a page that had just her name, and then another page that had the question I had given the class and her paper’s title, presented as an answer. The text of the paper itself was neatly written with crisp margins and deep indents for the first line of each paragraph. The length was impressive, slightly over the 3-page maximum I had requested. There was a blank page at the end to serve as a back cover. None of the other papers that were handed in showed any of the care Karen had taken with the presentation of her work.

But when I read the paper, I saw that it was just a jumble of information. She had clearly done a lot of research, but much of it seemed off-topic. She had beautifully phrased sentences interspersed with incomprehensible sentence fragments. There was no thesis statement, and try as I might to infer one from the paper, I could not make out what she was trying to say. Instead of answering the question I had posed, she had accumulated a lot of information that was at least tangentially related to the topic, and then dumped it out in a pile.

I talked with her, and told her that while the appearance of her paper was impressive, I wasn’t grading on looks. There were serious problems with the content and organization, and she was going to have to go back and do a lot of work to get this paper into shape. Fortunately, she probably had gathered all the information she would need. I urged her to start by looking at the question I had asked, and trying to answer it verbally in simple, straightforward terms. Once she could do that, it was a matter of organizing the information she had gathered in support of her thesis.

Karen said very little during our meeting, but the next day I was called to the principal’s office. She told me that Karen was terribly upset because I had criticized her work so harshly.

“Don’t you know,” the principal said, “that Karen has struggled since she started school with reading and writing? She came to us after several years in a school devoted to addressing students with verbal processing issues. I saw her paper, and despite whatever flaws it has, it shows remarkable improvement over where she was just a short while ago.”

I was chastened to be much more encouraging to Karen. I tried. But it was too late. From the time of our first conversation about her paper, Karen’s attitude towards me changed completely. Instead of being friendly and seeming to try to curry my favor, she now practically snarled at me. She stopped paying attention in class. She even said unkind things about me to her friends knowing that I would overhear her. It was disappointing to lose her cheery disposition, but even worse, it was now nearly impossible for me to teach her anything. Instead of being open and trusting, she was hostile and deliberately uncooperative.

There were some difficult but important lessons to be learned from the experience with Karen. First and most obviously, I realized that it is important to know as much as possible about the academic past performance of my students. It is also good to have relevant information about their styles of dealing with school, with stress, with other teachers. We are all human beings with different strengths and weaknesses. How we cope with the challenge of learning can have a great impact on our ability to succeed in school. Teachers can do a lot to make learning easier if they know what kinds of things have troubled students in the past. As a new teacher, I did not fully appreciate the value of student records and the important insights that could be obtained from my own colleagues. I could have done a better job of tailoring my lesson plans to the actual needs of the class if I had just done a little research.

But another more important lesson was found in the way Karen reacted to my critique. While I did not think at the time that I was being unduly harsh, I clearly had misread the situation. At first, I attributed my error to simple lack of knowledge about a student who was uniquely sensitive. Over time, however, I realized that the kind of sensitivity she exhibited was not unique to her. In fact, it is nearly universal.

As I reflected on the episode, I was reminded powerfully of a fundamental truth about my own experiences as a student. It stinks to be reminded constantly that you don’t know enough. It is somewhat better on the occasions that you can demonstrate proficiency in some small area – on a test, in a writing assignment, through a performance task – but these are breaks in the long uphill climb through school. Students are required to consume a mountain of information, and no matter how much you love learning, you spend most of the time unable to see the top. All too often, the school experience consists of being confronted with your own incompetence. It finally breaks some kids. Others learn how to cope. There is really no way to avoid this challenge, but a good teacher can help students learn how to cope rather than give up.

Several years into my teaching career, and some time after the experience with Karen, I taught Advanced Placement U.S. History in a public high school. My A.P. students were kids who had been mostly successful making good grades in school. Most of them came into the class knowing that it would be tough, but feeling pretty confident nevertheless. A lot of them had always been “good students,” and had never had much need to question why this was so. I aimed to change all that. One of my goals for the course was to challenge them as they had never been challenged before, and force them to find a way to cope. A.P. courses are supposed to prepare students for college work. If these kids had never felt that they were in over their heads and had to figure out a way to deal with it, then they weren’t really ready for college.

But I didn’t want to make it such a harsh experience that the kids who really struggled would finally throw up their defenses and stop trying. I spend a lot of time in class talking about learning, and about overcoming steep odds. I told them that no matter how successful you have been in the past, everyone is eventually confronted with a situation in which the things you know how to do to succeed don’t work. That’s when you have to recognize your limits and work on expanding them. It’s humbling, and it may be difficult, but it makes you stronger in the end.

I delivered this message to my classes on a number of occasions, and to individuals who came to me with questions and problems doing their work as well. Invariably, if a student shared with me a problem he or she was having with an assignment, I focused my response not on the problem, but with the ways to resolve it. I consistently validated their frustration by assuring them that if they were really struggling with it, it meant they were learning something very valuable.

I think the message got through. For years, the school counselor shared with me that students had told him that I was the teacher who understood them best. The curious thing was that the names he mentioned were generally not those of kids I had counseled individually. They were the quiet kids who struggled without complaint, but somehow felt reassured in the knowledge that in struggling they were doing right.

Students need to feel that they have a safe place to learn. They need to trust that their teacher is on their side, and not just setting them up for failure. They need to know that failure is not a defeat, but a temporary stage on the path to learning.

I didn’t know how to create this kind of safe place when I first started teaching, and Karen and I both lost an opportunity because of it. But as time went on, I think I became rather good at it. Still, there were some students I was not able to reach.

One day in the late Spring, a former student came to visit me in my classroom. He had just finished his first year of college. I remembered him from class as a young man who had seemed pretty unhappy to be there. He asked questions only when absolutely necessary, and otherwise seemed to avoid talking with me or even making eye contact.

On this afternoon, he came to tell me that he owed me an apology.

“Back when I was in your class, I thought the way you taught it, you know …” he said, looking for the right words, “I thought it was just because you were a jerk.”

“But after I got to college, and saw how it was, I realized what you were trying to do.”

That was one of the best compliments I ever got as a teacher, delivered of course in a rather bittersweet package. I guess I never made him feel safe when he was in my class. But I am enormously proud of the fact that he felt safe enough to come back.

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