Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sheep, Simplicity and Losing the Point

David Greene (no relation) has a long but exceptionally worthwhile post up on his blog, "On Excellent Sheep: Our New Ruling Class." You should absolutely read the whole thing-- I am going to spin off one particular point here, but his whole piece is worth your time.

His "excellent sheep" are the people who are good at playing the school game.

They took as many AP courses as they could accumulate without any love of the subjects. They did all the same extracurriculars. They were tutored to get the highest SAT scores possible. They either had coaches or had “ghost”writers help them write their college essays They had all figured out how to play the academic game of success without taking risks but many couldn’t do simple tasks like get on a commuter train to NYC. These students were the epitome of a saying one of my “regular kids” put on a  t-shirt we made up one year: “Be Different. Just Like Everyone Else.” They followed the script to get the highest grades, the highest SAT scores, and to get them into the most elite universities in the country. And get in they did.

I do not teach in a high-powered super-school, but I have taught an honors class to juniors for twenty-some years now, and I know the students he's speaking about. Mine are generally less wealthy and may have fewer resources that his excellent sheep, but as I read Greene's piece I recognized the habits of mind.

You might think that smarter students, intellectually gifted students would be more engaged in their educations, but as I tell my students, "Some of you do not use your powers for good." Their stronger mental and school skills often mean that they are less engaged than my less academically gifted students.

Teaching is like setting up an obstacle course for students, with the intent that running the course will cause them to develop certain skills and acquire certain knowledge. But the excellent sheep are good at seeing ways to just walk around the obstacle course and still end up at the other side. They like to reduce assignments to a simple series of hoops. Thinking about what they're doing, becoming engaged, really wrestling mentally with the material-- all of that just slows them down. They will ask questions about assignments, but these are not questions borne of curiosity-- they're just carefully reworded versions of "Just tell me exactly what you have to see in order for me to get my A." Thwarting these sheep and putting them in pens that they must think their way out of is one of the great ongoing goals of my teaching career.

Like Greene, I see this ability to skip the process and fake the outcome in the people driving reform. In fact, Andrew Rotherman of reformster-friendly Bellwether said much the same thing at US News when he points out that the people driving the ed reform bus are the people who were "good at school" and so want to install exactly the same sort of systems that they were so good at gaming.

At first glance it might seem that what we're looking at is the ability to simplify-- and isn't that a good thing? Henry David Thoreau's Walden is a hymn to simplicity, to cutting away all the extra fat so that we can see the bare bones of What Really Matters.

But there's the problem. Because if we're not careful, what we're cutting away isn't fat at all.

This is particularly true when you simplify a complex internal human operation down to simple superficial measures. You could, for instance, that you are going to decide to measure how much somebody loves you by the superficial measure of how many times they call you, or how much they spent on your birthday present, or how many times they kiss you in a week. But these clear simple measures of a complex and intricate phenomenon are clear and simple precisely because they miss the point.

The excellent sheep, whether they are in the classroom or being educational thought leaders, have made the same mistake.

I say, "Read the Sun Also Rises, and tell me how you think ideas like alienation and powerlessness are reflected in both the novel and the modernist movement. When we've had some discussion, I'll ask you to expand those ideas in a paper about the subject."

The excellent sheep hear "Blah blah blah write a paper" and start asking questions like "Exactly how long does it have to be?" and "How many quotes from the novel should we use?" They say to each other (and remember when they grow up to be thought leaders) "I wish we were just doing a multiple choice test on this. I kick ass on multiple choice tests." They may complain about the assignment-- "Why doesn't he tell us exactly what he wants us to write? If he would tell me exactly what I'm supposed to write, I could just go ahead and write that."

Reducing complex behaviors to simple measures always means losing the idea, missing the point, cutting away that which is most essential in the behavior. My students want to do it, and the excellent sheep who have commandeered education have enshrined this sort of point-missing into regulation.

With my students, there is hope. They're young, and we go very meta on this phenomenon in my class, talking about what they're doing and how they're doing it and why it is not in their best interest to do it. I was an excellent sheep once; I know most of the shortcuts and I'm almost always there waiting for them when they try to take one.

Unfortunately, I don't get to have this discussion with the excellent sheep who are running the reformy show, nor do I think I could make an impression. They are rich and successful and they have drawn the very sheeplike conclusion that their success is a direct result of their sheepishness. Those of us who are reformed sheep almost always got there because life handed us a huge attitude adjustment, and that's a benefit that I'm in no position to deliver.

So the most I can do is write and read and talk. Those of us who aren't sheep need to do that at a minimum, because the excellent sheep are so determined and confident that the rest of us can start to doubt our own senses, and we need to remind each other that there are huge, important aspects of life that the sheep are missing entirely.

Keep the faith. Don't believe the excellent sheep.


  1. Yes, those students are good "test-takers" but they aren't really engaged and don't really learn because they don't care, they only care about the grade. Notice the students you talk about ask "how long?" and" how many?", which are questions about metrics, and again reminds me of The Little Prince, who thought grown-ups were weird because they didn't understand what's important in life because they were so obsessed with numbers. What's most important in life, which is relationships with other humans, can't be measured. I think something that's just as important as technology in a "21st century curriculum" is classes in sociology. Too many people, especially those in power, have an empathy deficit disorder, which makes them unable to see clearly.

    As you say, the reformers try to simplify things with their algorithms and "efficiency," but they're missing the essence, which in this case is that the problem with inequity is not inequity in teacher effectiveness, but inequity of opportunity because of obstacles put up by poverty. They're trying to solve a problem without first identifying correctly the cause of the problem. Which is not efficient at all.

  2. Let’s also talk about the attacks on teachers’ pensions across this country:

  3. Oh, Mr. Greene. You speak to my condition. As a physics teacher, most of my students are excellent, and constantly try to convince me that they would learn better if I would just provide more examples, executed by me of course, and so be relieved of the long, difficult and tedious process of pulling together many strands of reasoning to make sense of a physical situation for themselves. I still hold them in high enough regard not to cave.

    The legislation being inflicted on education in Indiana doubles (triples? quadruples?) down on promoting sheepishness throughout the entire educational hierarchy to produce more excellent sheeply qualities. I find it unfortunate that classes such as AP are exclusively about the score now. We even pay kids $100 for a 3 or more on the test! Me too! We are market-driven here for sure.

    Those of us who do not promote sheep production are on ever more shaky ground, as our "effectiveness" is now based on producing more excellent sheep. The AP test results are now a part of my official performance goal, by law. Please please please someone keep telling me that I am not crazy to see this as insanity.