Feel-Bad Education

Feel-Bad Education And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling by Alfie Kohn

Kohn takes self-evident facts of human psychology and applies them to education, pointing out how conventional schooling goes against obvious principles like “Students are more likely to learn what they find interesting.” I appreciated how he defines progressive education and explains why it’s so rare; this concept is something you often hear about in education circles, but one that I have never personally seen in practice. Some people might find Kohn kind of extreme: not only does he oppose standardized testing of any kind, he’s even against all forms of number and letter grades. But even though he argues for ideas that most would consider radical, he always traces them back to principles that most people would agree with, and thoroughly and persuasively explains his position. His work is very well-researched and based on evidence, as well as on his progressive views on the purpose of education.


The Teacher Wars

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein

Often, in debating education issues, people talk about getting things back to the way they were in some golden age. But a careful look at the history shows that there were problems of some kind at every point in the past; there was no golden age, no perfect time that we need to return to. If anything, a broader perspective shows how much better things are now than even in the recent past. Still, it’s useful to know how we got where we are, especially when the mud starts slinging.

Goldstein goes back to the beginning of American education to illuminate how the teaching profession has changed over the years. I particularly appreciated learning about how teaching became a female-dominated profession: women teachers were pitched as a chance to save money on salaries. The missionary zeal of these pioneering young women is compared aptly to that of college graduates who join Teach For America today. I was fascinated by the stories of school integration and teachers’ strikes.

It becomes clear in this longer view that there is no one party or group that has always had the moral high ground in debates on education. At various times and places teachers’ unions have fought for both what I would consider ‘the good side’ and ‘the bad side,’ while concepts like local control have been used for good and for evil–to resist both charter schools and racial integration, for example.

I agreed with the majority of Goldstein’s concluding recommendations, especially improving teacher pay, using tests appropriately, and giving teachers time to collaborate and observe each other. I am more sanguine about teachers’ unions than she is, but that’s probably because I have had a positive personal experience with mine, while she has reported and written about cases where unions were in the wrong. Even so, a sympathetic, well-researched book like this can only improve teachers’ working conditions and professional standing, so even though she argues for ending “outdated” union protections, it’s a net positive for teachers.

I Wrote a Guest Post on Dad Gone Wild

I wrote something about my experience in an alternative teacher licensure program and sent it to TC Webber of Dad Gone Wild. He posted it and hopefully it will get the conversation going about teacher training. Here’s a permanent link. I’m super excited that Diane Ravitch retweeted me!


Books on Teaching, part 2

Here are two books I’ve read recently that are written for teachers about improving their classroom practice. My favorite things about these books are their titles, and for once they actually live up to them.


Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn R. Jackson

The title of this book comes from something I’ve seen and done many times–a teacher working really hard in front of a passive group of students–working so hard she’s actually doing stuff they should be doing, like answering her own questions, and voicing all sides of a discussion. A lot of this book’s info is stuff I learned in my MAT classes–begin with the end in mind, zone of proximal development–but it’s the kind of stuff that’s good to hear again in a new way. I liked that Jackson is so reasonable in her expectations of what teachers will be able to actually accomplish. For example, she acknowledges that you can’t teach every standard, so she gives you a principle to help you pick which ones to teach and which ones to skip. Her advice is grounded in the reality of a teacher’s classroom experience and she acknowledges at every turn how hard this job is.


Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham

Again, the title of this book was tailored to appeal to me. I’ve joked that the reason I became a teacher is because I like school, am good at it, and never wanted to leave it. Even 7 years in, it’s honestly a little baffling for me when students don’t feel the same. This book is organized around questions teachers might ask about classroom challenges that psychologists can answer. The title question is also one answered in Thinking, Fast and Slow: the brain isn’t made for deep, abstract thinking, but for doing minimal work with minimal effort. Willingham focuses a teacher’s attention on whether or not the specific actions they’re asking students to do will help them build skills and remember facts or not, pointing out that “dog and pony shows” are often counterproductive (no matter how much principals may like them). He also gives a few concrete strategies, like storytelling and building background knowledge.

I loved the way this book debunked several myths about the brain and education that create more work for teachers without enhancing student learning, especially the idea of multiple intelligences, and the idea that students need to learn to “think like scientists” and other experts.

Internet Roundup: Education Part 7

Betsy DeVos, who Trump has announced he will nominate to be Secretary of Education, is like many of his cabinet picks, a fox put in charge of the henhouse, vowing to destroy the institution he has chosen to entrust her with. If Detroit’s terrible decentralized all-charter school system is any indication of what she intends to do with the rest of the country’s schools, we are all in trouble.

DeVos and those who agree with her about educational issues talk a lot about “school choice,” which is one of those things that sounds good in theory, but does not work as advertised. The logic of free markets does not apply to education for a few reasons. First, education is not a consumer product, it is a public good and a human right. Second, all parents are not necessarily able to act as “informed consumers” where schools are concerned, and are constrained in their choices by geography, transportation, and a lack of time to research different schools. Third, allowing companies to profit from education incentivizes them to spend as little money on educating students as possible, so that they can keep more for themselves. Fourth, “choice” does not guarantee quality. It doesn’t mean “pick any school in the world.” It usually means “pick one of the two terrible schools in your neighborhood.”

Here are a few articles that fully explain the folly of charter schools, vouchers, other “school choice” policies, and debunk the arguments behind them.

“The Problem with Choice” by Pauline Hawkins

The Essential Selfishness of School Choice” by Steven Singer

“Why Is ‘The Decimation of Public Schools’ a Bad Thing?” by Nathan J. Robinson

If school choice isn’t the answer, what is? This article discusses in a very comprehensive way the concrete reforms and changes in education that would actually work. The author is a Texas legislator who visited all 55 of the schools in his district and conducted many interviews. Time, stability, resources, support staff, wraparound services: it’s really common sense, but also expensive.

What They Said: What I Learned from Conversations with Texas Educators” by Diego Bernal

Internet Roundup: Education, Part 6

I’ve been keeping myself informed on education policy for a few years now, and am beginning to get involved in local efforts to improve laws and programs. There’s a lot going on in Nashville in this arena; for some great commentary on our local education politics, follow TC Weber’s blog Dad Gone Wild. Now that I’m no longer in survival mode with a brand-new baby, I am starting to go to meetings and get to know the people here in Nashville who are making a difference in our schools. I even spoke at a school board meeting last month!

I like to share some of the things I read and find noteworthy, but there’s been so much happening this year that it’s hard to tell what to link. This time rather than highlighting specific policies or changes, I picked some articles that address overarching themes in the debate.

“Education Does Not Cure Poverty–It Cures Ignorance” by Steven Singer 

So much of education policy is driven by the idea that if more people graduate high school and college with useful skills, they’ll be able to get good jobs, and the economy will improve. But improving your income is not the point of education. It’s a nice side effect. And counting on schools to improve our country’s economy lets a lot of people off the hook–the ones who are paying low wages, the ones who speculated irresponsibly and crashed the stock market. I love how Singer gets into big questions about what makes life worth living, and turns lawmakers’ conventional wisdom on its head.

“Stop Humiliating Teachers” by David Denby

It’s past time for the attacks on teachers to stop. The assumption behind so many education “reform” laws is that teachers are lazy idiots who do the bare minimum for their cushy benefits, who won’t do any real work unless they’re in fear for their jobs. This insult does more to hurt teacher morale and scare bright young people away from the profession than anything else, except perhaps the low pay, which is insulting in a different way. Denby puts the blame squarely where it belongs, on poverty.

“The Myth of the Superhero Teacher” by JP Fugler

If we depend on teachers to be superheroes in order to adequately educate our children, we’re going to be disappointed. First, there are not enough “rock star” teachers out there, and second, it’s a recipe for burnout. And as Fugler points out, it’s patronizing, substituting fawning praise for tangible rewards. I wish he had addressed the data-driven arguments I often hear about how giving students a “good” teacher three years in a row can reverse the achievement gap. That bogus research is based on formulas that predict the growth of corn. But I love how Fugler points to the movies that perpetuate this myth.  Teachers are just normal people trying to do an emotionally taxing, cognitively complex job, and we need support and resources and freedom from excessive, unfair scrutiny more than we need a pat on the back.

Books on teaching

I recently read two books for teachers that I hoped would help me improve my teaching by motivating my students.

150 Ways to Increase Intrinsic Motivation in the Classroom by James P. Raffini


I didn’t find this book to be as helpful and useful as I’d hoped. Most of the activities were for a specific age group or a particular subject matter, and wouldn’t transfer well for use in every classroom. The only ones I think I’ll use are the ones that function as “icebreakers.” I think the most broadly relevant part of the book was the way it broke down motivation into filling students’ needs for autonomy, competence, belonging, self-esteem, and enjoyment. From there, it focused on making changes to some structures in the classroom that can either improve or harm student motivation. Those structures were task, authority, reward, grouping, evaluation, and time. More broadly speaking, thinking of ways to tweak those structures to fill student needs could create lots of good changes in a classroom.

The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game by Lee Sheldon


This book gave me a lot of validation because one of the main things it suggests is something I already do in my classroom. Rather than starting students with a grade of 100, so that every assignment is a chance to lose points, I begin everyone with a grade of zero, so that grades only ever improve, and every assignment earns some points, even if it’s not perfect. This grading structure mimics video games in which players begin at level one and gain points until they reach higher levels. It’s much more motivating than a more punitive grading system. Sheldon spends a lot of time applying video game terminology to his class activities, which I thought was less interesting or important than how the actual activities and structures of the class are changed by this gaming focus. There are several case studies that I wish I’d seen more details of, and I didn’t see any case studies in my own subjects, so I was kind of left wondering how my class could become more gamelike. I’ll keep thinking about it though. This book gave me a lot to think about.