Edutrends and classroom management

I just re-posted a post on Out in Left Field about whether whether student-centered learning is driven not just by Progressive ideology and Constructivist learning theory, but also by a combination of expedience and exhaustion. Perhaps, given the attention spans of today’s students, it’s less exhausting to be the Guide on the Side than the Sage on the Stage.

Friends who’ve tried teaching in non-magnet secondary schools in Philadelphia have told me that the moment they turn their backs to their students to write something on the white board, all hell breaks loose.

But it occurs to me that, since I wrote that post, we’ve entered a global learning pandemic in which nearly all students have tablets or laptops. Nowadays, it may be easiest of all to manage a low-attention classroom when everyone is glued to a screen.

Social motivation in autism: a critique of Jaswal & Akhtar (2019)

(Cross-posted at

In a piece entitled Being versus appearing socially uninterested: Challenging assumptions about social motivation in autism, Jaswal & Akhtar (2019) set out to challenge the long-established view that many of the behavioral characteristics of autism indicate a lack of social interest. They propose “alternative explanations for four such behaviors: (a) low levels of eye contact, (b) infrequent pointing, (c) motor stereotypies, and (d) echolalia.”

Rita.obeid6, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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Whither the SATs? The GREs? The LSATs?

A May 20th article in the Wall Street Journal reports that:
An American Bar Association panel that accredits law schools issued a proposal Friday to make standardized tests optional for admission, a move that would follow a trend seen in undergraduate admissions offices and give schools more flexibility in how they select law students.

Next up, the MCATS?

Given the direction we’re currently headed in, I was inspired to re-post this, from Out in Left Field:

What should colleges be testing for?

We Need More Tests, Not Fewer” argues John D. Mayer a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and author of “Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives,” in a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times.

He begins by talking about how effectively tests capture people’s later accomplishments, as well as more elusive aspects of cognitive potential and personality: Research indicates that mental tests do predict people’s patterns of behavior in consequential ways. For instance, graduate students’ G.R.E. scores are correlated with the ratings faculty members later give them, their likelihood of remaining in a program, and the impact of their publications (as measured by citations). And tests like the NEO-PI-R that measure social and emotional traits like conscientiousness and agreeableness can predict a person’s longevity and likelihood of staying married.

In addition, tests are our only way to study and attempt to understand ineffable mental qualities like intelligence, openness to experience and creativity. They help make the mysteries of mental life tangible. Neuroscientists use them to discover who excels in particular mental abilities, and to try to identify the parts of the brain responsible.

So far so good. All this sounds reasonable and plausible. Over the last century, a whole host of different tests have emerged that predict, apparently with increasing accuracy, more and more aspects of cognition and personality.

Much less clear, however, is how these tests should be used. One good use, in Meyer’s opinion, is in college admissions:

What if, in addition to the SAT, students were offered new tests that measured more diverse abilities? For future artists or musicians, there are tests that measure divergent thinking — a cornerstone of creativity largely ignored by the SAT. For future engineers, there are tests that measure spatial reasoning. And new measures of “personal intelligence” — the ability to reason about a person’s motives, emotions and patterns of activities — may also tell us something important about students’ self-knowledge and understanding of others.

But considering non-academic skills like social skills, and, arguably, divergent thinking, smacks of the “best graduates” over “best students” strategy, discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 New Yorker article Getting In, that was used by Harvard, Yale and Princeton to limit the numbers of Jewish matriculates back in the mid-20th century–and that is probably being used by those same schools to limit the numbers of Asian students today. Should admissions favor those who look like they will have the most “successful” careers after college (as measured, typically, by fame and fortune) over those who look like they will do best in college classes?

Colleges, of course, aren’t monoliths, and different insiders will have different answers to this question. Professors, presumably, prefer students who show up to class, pay attention, contribute to discussions, write the best papers and problem sets, and have the greatest potential to master the course material; development officers, presumably, favor those who will donate the most money and generate the most publicity for their alma maters.

Ethics, I believe, are firmly on the side of the professors.

First of all, taken to its extreme, a best-graduates policy has you favoring not only those with certain types of social skills, leadership skills, and creative skills, but also those with certain physical traits and family resources. Beauty, stature, and family wealth and connections, after all, are correlated with future earnings and fame. Thus, in addition to the existing discrimination against Asians and nerds and Aspies you’d have (to the extent that this is not already the case–cf. legacy admissions) discrimination against the vertically-impaired, the not-so-good-looking, and those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

Second of all, what is the purpose of these non-profit, government funded, academic institutions called colleges? Is it to coast off of those who will have a certain type of showy, real-world success regardless of how much, or how little, they actually teach them? Or is it to recruit, challenge and inspire the most academically advanced and motivated students and help them reach their academic capacities, both by teaching them well inside the classroom, and by providing fora–cafeterias, quadrangles, and common rooms–where they can interact among themselves, conversing, arguing, and bouncing ideas around, in ways that many of them have never before had the opportunity?

John Dewey and the citizen child

From an interesting essay on John Dewey by John Fennelly:

Largely responsible for the positive reception of Dewey’s pedagogical principles was concern over the profoundly changing social and economic environment, especially the rapid growth of cities. . . . Schools, in Dewey’s vision, emerged as the premier mechanism for preserving democratic arrangements.

. . . . Traditional practices such as routine conveyance of subject matter, teacher-centeredness, rote memorization, neat rows of desks, and a quiet classroom had to be abandoned because they were not only out of step with the times but also encouraged undemocratic habits and attitudes. 

So apparently Dewey believed one should educate children in civics the same way progressive education educates students in math and science: not by learning civics (or math or science) via instruction, practice, and testing, but by doing civics via group problem solving.

Should students learn about the Holocaust?

How much has changed in the last decade! When I first re-read the title of this archival post from Out in Left Field, the issues that popped into my head were trigger warnings and student mental health; not the notion of a canon of historical facts that everyone should know.

Are there people out there now, I can’t help but wonder, who think that today’s students are too fragile for this topic?

Here’s the old post:

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How would you prefer to learn to read Georgian?

As I get more and more involved in combating facilitated communication, it occurs to me that two things that FC proponents under-appreciate is (1) what it takes to learn to read and spell, and (2) just how unlikely it is that someone could accomplish this without explicit, systematic instruction. 

That’s because most FC proponents, like most Americans, don’t remember what it was like learning the English writing system (I certainly don’t!). 

And because most of them, like most Americans, have never tried to crack the code of a completely different phonetic alphabet like Georgian,

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Empathy *is* important–let’s rethink how we “teach” it

Forget the rest of “social emotional learning”. In a society where people routinely demonize, shout down, and cancel those who disagree with them on hot-button issues, and are ignorant of what life is like for people outside their socioeconomic bubbles, not to mention people in other countries and cultures around the world, we need more than ever to promote empathy.

Here’s my two cents, which I just re-posted on Out in Left Field.

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A new union

In the spring of 2018, a young SEIU organizer, fresh out of Yale, arrived at my college to organize a union. I came on board the following fall and have been working on organizing the campuses ever since.

Organizing an army of adjuncts who have no offices and no connection to each other is a massive undertaking, made far more difficult in our case by Covid and Zoom, not to mention masks.

Kids don’t learn remotely, and workers don’t organize remotely, either. I don’t know why remote learning and remote organizing are so deficient, but they are. 

In spring 2019, we won our union 4 to 1.

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