Weekly Words: College Mania

The season of college admission insanity is upon us, and it is–like fights over Huck Finn in school, or more recently the White House Correspondents Dinner–a reliable, if not particularly illuminating conversational topic. The New York Times has a “did I go to the wrong college?” piece which has the advantage of being a candid riposte to the miles of copy, and hours of agonized conversation “getting in.” (Something I have contributed my bit to alas).

Some quotes on post-secondary ed (pro and con) to add a bit of perspective (including a few from Terry Pratchett’s spoof Unseen Academicals.)


“I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while—just once in a while—there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom, and that if it doesn’t, it’s just a disgusting waste of time! But there never is! You never even hear any hints dropped on a campus that wisdom is supposed to be the goal of knowledge. You hardly ever even hear the word ‘wisdom’ mentioned!”
― J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey


“Usually when you ask somebody in college why they are there, they’ll tell you it’s to get an education. The truth of it is, they are there to get the degree so that they can get ahead in the rat race. Too many college radicals are two-timing punks. The only reason you should be in college is to destroy it.”
― Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Book


“Some people get an education without going to college. The rest get it after they get out.”
― Mark Twain


“A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”
― Herman Melville


You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James? They may like John Irving, for instance, who’s the bore of all time. A lot of the people whose work they’ve taught in the schools for the last thirty years, I can’t understand why people read them and why they are taught. The library, on the other hand, has no biases. The information is all there for you to interpret. You don’t have someone telling you what to think. You discover it for yourself.”
― Ray Bradbury


“And yet not a dream, but a mighty reality- a glimpse of the higher life, the broader possibilities of humanity, which is granted to the man who, amid the rush and roar of living, pauses four short years to learn what living means”
― W.E.B. Du Bois


‘Smart is only a polished version of dumb. Try intelligence. It will surely see you through’. –Terry Pratchett


‘Well, for the proper working of the world, said Lady Margolotta, ‘it is essential that ring binders are important to at least one person.’ –Terry Pratchett


Finally, on the nerdy side, there is research about how college affects students, and although this does not specifically reflect on the role of college choice, it does suggest that the advice your grandmother might have given you, namely, “that it’s what you put in to once you are there that matters most, not where you go” is the right approach.  Within college differences make matter more than distinction sbetween institution. Selectivity, meh!

Some relevant bits excerpted (with my comments) from How College Affects Students,

“In our 1991 review, we found that, across all of the outcomes considered, where students attended college had less impact than either the net effect of attending versus not attending college or of differences among individuals’ experiences during college (within-college effects). The more recent evidence underlying the present synthesis reinforces this conclusion. Clearly, the 3,000-plus post-secondary institutions in the United States differ substantially in size, complexity, type of control, mission, financial and educational resources, research-teaching orientation of faculty, reputation and prestige, and characteristics of students enrolled. Yet, with some notable expectations (for instance, 2-year vs. 4-year mostly, with 2-year students showing more development) the weight of evidence from the 1990s casts considerable doubt on the premise that the substantial structural, resource, and qualitative differences among post-secondary institutions produce correspondingly large differences in net educational effects on students. Rather, the great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth, although the “start’ and “end’ points for students differ across different institutions. Consistent with our 1991 synthesis (as well as with Bowen’s 1977 review), the post-1990 research leads to the conclusion that similarities in between-college effects substantially outweigh the difference.”

(As for “college quality” )—“Aside from these small effects, however, little consistent evidence suggested that college selectivity, prestige, or educational resources had any important net impact in such areas as learning, cognitive and intellectual development, the majority of psychosocial changes, the development of principled moral reasoning, or shifts in attitudes and values.” “…we found that attending an academically selective institution has a negligible impact on knowledge acquisition or general cognitive development.”

“Similarly, we found little evidence of any appreciable effects of institutional selectivity on academic and social self-concept, self-esteem, or other psychosocial dimensions once adjustments were made of other sources of influence. When institutional quality appears to be a factor at all, its impact is small and occasionally negative. (Including less positive dispositions towards diversity which may increase mildly as institutions become more selective.)


The last word to Robert Frost, college dropout.

“What we do in college is to get over our little-mindedness. To get an education you have to hang around till you catch on.”

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Teach Now: Teacher Corps for 50-somethings

Financial Times writer Lucy Kellaway, has wrapped up her 30+ year as a journalist, let her hair go gray, and decided to become a secondary school mathematics teacher (or ‘maths’ in U.K. parlance).

Here she is in a TED Talk describing her decision.

Kellaway was droll and feisty as a columnist, usually a ball to read, making wicked fun of FT’s own class of corporate types. Here she is on the inanity of corporate gobbledygook.

In her TED talk she admits to something few journalists might, that she feared her writing wasn’t getting any better, she wasn’t learning anything new, and the job, though posh, hardly made much difference. (Her takedowns of corporate-speak do not seem to have reformed corporate culture, any more than the Dilbert comic strip has.)

So she decided to become a teacher, which, among other things, holds at least the possibility of greater personal meaning and satisfaction. Now in the student-teacher part of her training, she seems willing to assess her performance in class with the same candor that she brought to the subjects of her journalism. (She reports that her charges can’t wait for their regular teacher to return, and the habits of an award-winning journalist are a little slovenly for for the classroom.)

There are some things that are a bit questionable. It seems her effort is vaguely modeled on a British version of Teach for America (the well-intentioned program that places new graduates from elite colleges and universities in schools often for a resume burnishing stint pre-grad school.) Kellaway is past that (she describes her self as “post status” which is a bit laughable; perhaps she thinks three decades on one of the planet’s most prestigious newspapers doesn’t count as status, but status it is.) It’s the status of teachers and teaching that I would hope she focuses on, which is not something that the celebrity returning to teach automatically manages to foreground. (This is not a new phenomena: Tony Danza tried it in Philadelphia a few years back, with a film crew in tow. His teaching career didn’t last (and judging by his amiable incompetence on display in the show, that was a good thing), but to his credit he has stayed connected to the high school and wrote a book about it.

Kellaway gets that teaching is a profession, and a demanding one, and seems to understand the significant amount of work required to achieve mere competence, much less exceptional proficiency. (That her mother and daughter were teachers helps.) That she assumes that accomplished people from professional life in the later decades would take to it and thrive is both an intriguing thought, but should be leavened with a real understanding and respect for people who have been doing it their whole lives, and for whom it was affirmative career choice from day one, and as worthy of respect as any corporate path, not an afterthought.

Teaching as a Craft: Bansho-Keikaku

On and off in my life, I’ve been engaged in what might be called ‘comparative pedagogy’ –that is, looking at different ways of teaching and learning topics, most typically math, which, in addition to being a favorite subject of mine, has been the subject of intense educational reform battles my entire life.

I’m not going to wade into those fights, but am sharing one fascinating thing in comparative math teaching that I learned about doing a project a few years back on problem solving (an explicit part of the much debated Common Core standards).

Teaching problem solving in a typical U.S. classroom, indeed even what we think of as a problem for math class, can differ from what is presented in other countries. In Japan, problems, even at early grades have more conceptual richness, requiring a ‘puzzling out’ period, not just an application of a procedure. And when a teacher works with a class to teach a problem, he or she plans out how the entire problem will be written out progressively on the board (using chalk, not an overhead) and taking a substantial portion of the class time.

By the time this interactive work is complete, the group’s thinking about the problem will be visible on the board it its entirety.  Part of the planning for this, is the teacher’s planning how to present it, Bansho-Keikaku, and it is part of the lesson study that Japanese education is so well-known for.

A guest post on Larry Cuban’s great blog explains more about this board writing and what it accomplishes.

It isn’t just math class that relies on this practice, but the humble chalk and chalkboard when used with skill intention brought coherence to other disciplines too. A representative quote.

“Most importantly, teachers carefully preserved a lesson storyline as they progressed across the board. They added elements in a strategic sequence that helped bring coherence to the lesson, and rarely erased content unless they reached a major instructional transition.”

I have seen (although never had) teachers in the U.S. who had this kind of skill and approach, but it does seem like a rarity here, and a missed opportunity.