Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Why Teach Literature Stuff: #5 Language Is Power

When I was teaching, and I had extra time on my hands, I would reflect on the work--the whys and hows and whats. So in solidarity with my former colleagues, I'm going to write a series about every English teacher's favorite thing-- teaching literature, and why we do it. There will be some number of posts (I don't have a plan here).

Also, it would be nice to write and read about something positive, and I don't know anything much more positive than what teachers do and why they do it.

Language is power. It is, many times, just as powerful, even more powerful, than the barrel of a gun, because it is language that determines where the barrel of the gun will be aimed.

This is certainly not the only age, maybe not even the worst age, to demonstrate how the power of language can shape arguments, protect the guilty, rain down abuse on the innocent. But the US would certainly be in a different place today if more citizens had well-honed bullshit detectors.

There are always different ways to say things; every statement, observation, sentence, part of a sentence represents a set of choices and, intentionally or not, those choices tell us something about the person who strung those words together. But we have to be good enough at language to see what the person is showing us. And there is only one way to get better at that, and that is to read read read read read.

Ditto for writing. Every time we start stringing words together, we make choices, either deliberate and mindful, or spinning out of habit and instinct. If we want to get a point across, we need to assemble the tools that will do it. I knew a guy back in the day who could perform all manner of juggling and tossing and balancing with a tennis racket, because he was a tennis player and he worked with that racket every single day, knew it so well that it was like an extension of his hand. It was his tool.

Tools are the big thing. My students generally had one of two main problems with writing-- one was not having really thought about what they wanted to say (most writing problems are really thinking problems) , but the other was just not having the language they needed, of only having a word handy that was close, almost, sort of the word they needed.

We know this; it's why most language teachers teach vocabulary, even if we mostly teach it badly. We know that students needs larger vocabularies, but you don't get there with "here's a list to memorize for a test Friday." You build your vocabulary by reading and by-- well, no, it's pretty much by reading. Having someone around who uses the words is a distant second. It's reading. I have never known a good writer who was not also a reader.

Language is power. It lets you shape how people see an issue, think about a situation, even remember events. It lets you shape how they interpret the world. It lets you shape how they see you.

To use it for all these purposes, you have to know it, how it feels, how it works, how it fits, how it gives names to things that people couldn't name before. You get that by reading. You get that by consuming language every day so that you can feel it.

Having this kind of knowledge and control of language means that others have less power over you with their use of language. You can see behind the curtain, unwrap the meanings that they are trying to twist and camouflage. You can spot bullshit when someone throws it at you; maybe you can even see through clearly enough to spot the weaknesses, the fault lines, the vulnerabilities, and then you can exercise some power of your own.

Language is power, and you get better at using it by reading it, day after day, especially the good stuff, and seeing how it's done.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Career And Technical Education Deserves A Resurgence. Let’s Not Mess-- Oh, Hell

Amidst all his slashing of the education budget, Donald Trump has proposed an enormous spending increase for one area—career and technical education. 
The Trump budget includes an increase of $900 million in spending on CTE. Of that, $680 million would be directed through the Carl D. Perkins program, the main conduit for moving federal money into high school and post-high school CTE programs, the kinds of programs that produce workers to fill the skilled labor jobs that keep a country functioning. The program is long overdue for a boost; the last twenty years of education reform have emphasized college preparedness over blue-collar work. This may be the rare Trumpian budget item that survives Congress.
CTE has been allowed to languish in some school systems, but the district in which I taught is part of a consortium that has run a seven-district vocational-technical school (the old-fashioned name for CTE) for decades. It has been a vibrant and valuable part of the education system, an important choice within the system that has served many of students well. I taught those students for most of my career; I cannot overstate the value of a good CTE program.
But as with all educational ideas, it is possible to do CTE badly. And, it turns out, one can even disrupt it entirely. Since this originally ran at Forbes.com, most schooling in the country has shut down. There has been a huge amount of discussion of whether or not the wave of forced distance learning can properly serve students with special needs-- but what about CTE students? How is a student supposed to gain competencies in welding or building trades over the internet? I'm afraid that many young people are seeing a critical part of their education coming to a complete, grinding halt.
So when things get back in gear again, here are some of the basic mistakes to avoid.
CTE as warehousing. In some districts, CTE has a bad history of being a dumping ground, a place to stick students who are a problem elsewhere within the system. CTE cannot be a default for students that stymie adults; imagine saying, “Well, I don’t know what to do with him, so let’s just send him to college.” CTE programs are not the place to hide your school’s challenging students. 
Cheating students out of the rest of their education. There is no reason to conclude that since Chris is going to be a welder, beautician, or home health care provider, Chris does not need to spend time learning to read or write or do math or learn history or study science or play in the band. A CTE student’s needs may be different (a welder may not need to know how to write a full MLA paper of literary analysis), but that student should have access to the full range of educational enrichment.
Becoming a business’s training center. A good CTE program taps into the local business community for everything from materials to instruction and work-study programs. A good CTE program also keeps an eye on where the needs are in the working world. Partnership with local business is essential, but that partnership needs to be balanced, and not simply focused on the needs of the business. Training should be applicable across the industry, and not just for a single employer. An employer may think it’s great to have the school crank out fifty workers for ten jobs, so that the business gets a good selection to choose from, but the school is responsible for all fifty of those students, not just the top ten.
Datafication. Cite Goodhart’s Law or Campbell’s Law or the mountain of words thrown up over high stakes testing—once you start trying to reduce everything in education to mass-manageable data, you stop asking “Is this important?” and start asking “Is this easy to measure?” Before you know it, the whole system is being aimed to shoot carefully at the wrong target. Most industries have good, solid measures in place. Welding certification is great. The fact that you can’t compare a welding student in Iowa with a heavy equipment operation student in Ohio does not mean that new layers of datafication are needed. 
A solid CTE program has provided many of my former students with rich and rewarding lives, as well as providing their communities with the invaluable benefits of their expertise. The US needs these programs, but it also needs them to be done well.

Please Hold Your Applause

Yeah, you. The one posting the memes about heroic grocery store workers and medical personnel. The one posting all the heartwarming stories about our collective outpourings of love and appreciation for the people doing the hard work right now, out in the world where viruses can find them. The one sharing articles about how we should all help keep these front line workers healthy. The one sharing posts about the cool ways teachers are filling in the education gaps and the heroic blue collar workers making sorely-needed stuff. You even put up some of those cartoons comparing them to superheroes.

Just hold on for a second.

It's not that these aren't great sentiments. It's not that the front line workers don't deserve a giant truckload of your personal "Hey thanks for fixing it so I was less likely to die" gratitude. It's not that we shouldn't all say, "Thank you for your service." It's not that there is something wonderful about the literal parades of thankful citizens. Because they deserve every bit of that.

But weren't you the one, not a few months ago, complaining about the foolishness of raising the minimum wage to $15/hour? Weren't you the one arguing how Those People want to just steal from the hard-working well-deserving rich folks who have by God earned their money doing Really Important Things? When a nurse near you was complaining about being overworked and underpaid in Ordinary Times, did I not see you shrug and mutter something about what "goes with the job"? Aren't you the person who routinely argues that if people don't want to live with poverty wages and no health insurance, they should have gotten more education so they could land better jobs? Or maybe you were the one who was quietly ignoring all of these issues, figuring they were somebody else's problem.

Okay, maybe that was then and this is now. Maybe you've seen the error of your ways. Maybe you know better now.

But still. Just hold on.

It's not that you shouldn't be appreciative now. You should. But given your past performance, it rings a little hollow. So while this is still going on, be grateful, be appreciative, and for heaven's sake, try, as much as possible, to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

But hold that applause. Hold onto those warm thoughts.

Hold onto them for a few months. Hold onto them until this mess has passed.

And then, if you're really still feeling this vibe, this "hooray for health care and blue collar workers who keep our country function ing and its people alive they really are te backbone of our nation" vibe, here are some things you can do.

When the subject of a minimum living wage in this country comes up, as it will, be a vocal supporter of a minimum wage raise. Hound your elected representative. Speak out. When CEOs whine that it's just not fiscally possible, remind them that when the economy slowed to a crawl, the people who kept the basic actions, the basic "take the customer's money" lifeblood of business flowing-- those were not the multimillionaires in the C-suites, but the front line workers. Do not accept the claim that the jobs are unimportant; we are living through the proof that this is not so.

And pay attention to the issues of pay. Things like the crappy rules that let restaurant owners pay workers less than three dollars an hour--even when they aren't serving customers, or the rules that let bosses give someone a fake "promotion" to a salaried position, so that the worker puts in way more hours for virtually no more pay. Things like the many tricks for committing wage theft. Does it all seem kind of obscure and wonky? Go study up.

Become a vocal supporter of affordable health care for all. I'm not going to be picky; you can go help picket the local MegaMart to push them to provide insurance for every single worker, or you can start hounding your elected representative for Medicare for All or some form of single payer health care.

And,  at a minimum, paid sick days.

Treat people who do these kinds of work with respect, every single day for the rest of your life. Treat them like human beings who are just as important as you are, and not like The Help.

Vote like it matters. Stop voting for people who think only rich folks matter.

When you hear bout them having to work in crappy conditions, like teaching in schools that are falling apart or working hospitals that are crumbling or being systematically mistreated and ripped off by their bosses, make a fuss. None of your business? Baloney-- as of the moment you decided these folks are heroes, it became your business.

Look, do you think these people are heroes? Well, heroes deserve to make enough money to live on. They deserve to have good, affordable health care so that illness or accident do not result in financial ruin. Heroes working heroically in heroic jobs deserve not to have to listen to a bunch of baloney about how their jobs aren't "good" jobs, especially when the reason they aren't good jobs is because the rest of us stood by and let the powers that be turn them into crappy jobs.

If you think these folks are heroes now, then please by God hold that thought until things get back to normalish, and demand that they be treated like heroes then. And don't accept bullshit about how we can't afford to treat them better-- in this century alone, we have somehow found trillions of dollars to "rescue" all sorts of folks and corporations. What we're discovering right now is that we can't afford for these people to not be on the front lines for us as a country.

(P.S. For all of you posting about how great it is that it's the music and performance and the arts that are getting us through-- you can back that up by making sure that the artists that are getting you through are getting paid.)

Sunday, March 29, 2020

ICYMI: What Day Is This Edition (3/29)

I feel like retirement gave me a head start, but yes-- after a while, the days kind of blend together. Still, we have some reading from the week. Remember, share safely.

The Biggest Obstacle To Moving America's Public Schools Online

Susan Adams, my editor at Forbes, takes a look at some of the problems with just tossing school onto the interwebz.

Baghian and Vallas candidates for LA state ed chief job

The indispensable Mercedes Schneider shows us once again that there is no failure that some of these reformsters can't walk away from, their reputations and careers intact and rising. Why the hell would anyone hire Paul Vallas? It's a mystery.

Misreading the main idea about reading

God bless Paul Thomas for repeatedly wading back into the current iteration of the reading wars, and thank heavens he's willing to add his expertise to the conversation.

What do we need to teach now?

A reminder from Deborah Cohan at Inside Higher Ed that we shouldn't get so distracted by the challenging how of the current situation that we lose sight of the what.

Where left and right agree on civics education.

From Education Next, a fairly well-balanced look at where the left and the right do and don't disagree when it comes to civics education.

Physical distance, social collective mourning

A personal dispatch from the JLV in NYC, where pandemic death has already hit the education community in the gut.

Online education is not winning over college students

One of the seventy-gabillion notes this week that some folks do not love the computer fed education life. From Hechinger Report.

Online Privacy Concerns

From EdWeek, a compendium of the many privacy concerns being raised as everyone rushes hook students to screens.

How about a national teacher plan?

Nancy Flanagan and friends with some important thoughts about this crisis-forged moment of opportunity. If we could rebuild from scratch, what would we build...?

Real learning in a virtual classroom is difficult 

Chris Lee, writing for Ars Technica, opens with a quote from his wife, a high school English teacher: "Remote teaching sucks. It's yucky, and it's not the future of education." He ends with a quote from one of his kidfs-- "I fucking hate it." In between some pretty thoughtful stuff about why this is not the future.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Why Teach Literature Stuff: #4 Books Versus Video

When I was teaching, and I had extra time on my hands, I would reflect on the work--the whys and hows and whats. So in solidarity with my former colleagues, I'm going to write a series about every English teacher's favorite thing-- teaching literature, and why we do it. There will be some number of posts (I don't have a plan here).

Also, it would be nice to write and read about something positive, and I don't know anything much more positive than what teachers do and why they do it.

You may have read the first three installments and thought (or imagined your students thinking) "Heck, I can get all that by watching tv or videos." Here's why I disagree.

For non-fiction, video can be useful. An afternoon of Crash Course on YouTube is pretty educational. I will even credit the medium with making the speaker's voice plain, so that bias is readily visible and identifiable. But video, because it's way more linear than text (you are compelled to watch the frames in a particular order) and because it demands steady and constant focus, is severely limited. There's a reason TED talks are short, that educational videos are super-brief. You can only watch for so long. That in turn limits the depth that can be covered. To turn a great work like Ron Chernow's Hamilton biography into a visual medium resulted in a stage show that takes a few hours to watch and still cuts corners from Chernow's original work.

Video is simply too limited to do any heavy lifting in the non-fiction world. Factoids, juicy tidbits, isolated items-- sure. But no more. There will always be more there there on the printed page than in any other medium.

With fiction, those advantages of print are even greater.

Movies and television have become more sophisticated over the years, but tv in particular features an awful lot of bad acting. Our students absorb a lot of that, a lot of "Oh, so that's how a person looks when they're shocked" or "That's how a person acts when they're sad." TV gives us lots of character shorthand in which actors boldly and unsubtly mug their character's feelings for the camera. It's quick and clear and lets the production zip through a story swiftly, but does it show students much about how real, live human beings function? It's a complex issue in some ways, because we've now had several generations growing up thinking that, say, the hyper-dramatic bloviations of professional wrestling are real life, and have used tv acting as a guide, a long and messy process that arguably helped bring us to the point of putting a shallow, lying reality tv star in the White House.

I know that I'm being a bit of a snob, and that humans and human drama are better portrayed on screens today than in the past (certainly better than the hacky tv of my own youth). And a visual medium can do things with imagery and non-verbal portraits that the printed word cannot. I would not for a million dollars bar students from learning via video.


A performance of a work is built around a single interpretation. Where a work on the page may be open to interpretation and arguments about what is going on, what it means, all such arguments have to be settled before the cameras can roll. The video version requires actors and directors to settle on an interpretation of the character, to identify a particular idea as the theme. There is little room on the screen for what my old college professor called "the ambiguity that enriches." Video can't help but lean toward the notion that there is only One True Reading of the text. Reading literature invites us to a relationship with the text, a relationship that can grow and change over the years. A video is a lecture, a demonstration of one specific chosen path.

For my money, literature in this respect far more closely resembles actual life in the world.

There are the limits of space and time, the hyperlinear quality of video that leaves us little chance to re-examine or drill into a particular passage, because it's always moving forward at its own speed. There's little room to dig in or break down what we're seeing, while the written word allows us to move at our pace, to double back, dig in, pause and reflect.

Videos, movie, tv, new hybrid steaming forms of screen stuff-- it's all valuable, and it all has stuff tom offer. But it's still less than literature.

Decades ago, pundits predicted that screens would replace books, that students would get all of their education from video tape and movies. More recently, people bet on Youtube as the nation's educator.  But it didn't happen. None of it happened. Because literature, the printed word, still contains more depth-- more accessible depth-- than anything else we've come up with, with the possible exception of conversation with real live humans.

So, no. As I work my way through this series of posts, I don't think we can just as easily replace books with screens.

When Tech Makes Educational Decisions

"The internet is a bad place. Young people really shouldn't use it at all."

The speaker was not some cranky parent or enraged luddite. It was the guy in charge of maintaining the network in my high school. In other words, the guy responsible for making sure it was possible for our students to access the internet. This was many years ago, but it slapped me upside the head with the realization that thanks to technology, a lot of educational choices were being made by folks who were not actually educators.

Okay, maybe we shouldn't have let him drive...
Plenty of teachers remember the worst of the early days of school internet connections. Inadequate infrastructure and bandwidth because nobody in IT actually asked teachers what they thought they would do with the internet once it was hooked up. Clunky hardware running crappy software that had been purchased without talking to any classroom teachers. And when teachers were consulted, it largely took the form of, "This is what we're going to do unless you convince us it's a terrible idea in the next day or two." (Note that this approach does not allow for the possibility that it's a mediocre idea and that many better ones exist.)

Oh, and internet access. Schools and their IT departments were afraid of the dark corners that students would wander into, and the various tech grants required filtering. So in many locations, the default was that pretty much everything on the internet was blocked unless someone in IT decided that there was a good reason for teachers to have access to a particular site. Teachers may have been given access to a form that would allow them to make their case.

Conditions improved, but the tension between teachers and techs is probably destined to be eternal. In my school, teachers initiated adoption of Moodle as a learning platform, but after a few years the tech department determined that it was too expensive and troublesome to maintain, so we switched to something that came bundled with the security service.

The tide can be tuned in positive directions, including opening up the internet much further to staff use. And in fairness, classroom teachers can drive IT folks up the wall, too (we could talk about my colleague who couldn't figure out why her computer was slowing down after she filled her entire hard drive with cross-stitch patterns, or the time I set off an alert by accidentally turning up a bunch of search returns loaded with obscene images). The solution is often more surveillance (in house, not the usual corporate data mining that comes with every software product, which is its own area of concern, though it can also be a chance for students to learn two important digital safety rules-- nothing you do on line is private, and nothing you "erase" is ever gone. At any rate, IT folks have legitimate concerns and priorities-- they just don't always match up with educational ones.

Every school district should have a system in place for the tech folks to get feedback and direction from the teaching staff, and no, some sort of form that allows teachers to humbly request favors from the tech department doesn't count.

I have been thinking about all of this as the current coronavirus pandemic shuts down schools and millions of students are thrown onto on-line schooling. How many learning platforms, software packages, content sets, and other techy details of education are, at this moment, being chosen and controlled by non-educators? How many teachers are finding that their hands are tied by the folks who run their school's IT department?

This is, of course, the smaller local version of the national argument that has been raging since education reform was a tiny glint in Bill Gates' eye. Silicon Valley has a real problem with knowing what they don't know. Witness this tweet from this morning:

please, tech people. PLEASE. if you dont have a background working in healthcare/medicine, stop the hackathons and just give money.

the potential to do harm is too high, and designing for medicine is a thing. health communication/tooling is a specialty, not a weekend project.

Ed tech is one of those areas where I wish teachers were less shy about asserting their expertise, more willing to say, "I'm the professional expert here, and you need to listen to what I have to tell you about this program, or there's no point in our talking." I really hope that as schools migrate on line for the next few days/weeks/months, teachers speak up and say things like "I need the program to do X; please, make that happen for me" instead of "Well, okay, this isn't really what I want or need, but I guess I'll find a way to work with it." It's a great thing that US teachers are adaptable and accommodating--that's how we've managed to get the work done over the years. But we have often been too accommodating to amateurs who want to sit in the driver's seat when they've never driven before.

Education decisions should be made by the education professionals, not the tech department. With rare exception, they don't have the training or experience for it, and their main concerns are not education concerns. They have no more business deciding what tools teachers should have for teaching than teachers have telling them how to run a 150-unit computer network smoothly. Teachers, insist on speaking up.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Business and Humanity (When People Tell You Who They Are)

It has been a central conflict in education for decades now. Should education be organized around the needs of the business world, guided by the invisible hand in service to The Economy.

We've heard it over and over again. Business is the customer for the product created by schools, so schools should be organized around cranking out the kinds of meat widgets that corporations want. And while we're at it, schools should be run more like a business, steered by visionary CEOs who don't have to answer to unions and government regulations. Data. Efficiency. Outputs. All of these things matter far more than all that fuzzy talk about whole children and, you know, education. We've been listening to it since A Nation at Risk cranked up the clarion call that the state of schooling was scary, not threatening our citizens' happiness or wisdom or humanity, but threatening our economy, our ability to compete globally. Our invisible hand is in danger of losing an arm wrestling match with their invisible hand.

We've known all along, some of us, that this is fundamentally wrong, not just anti-education, but anti-human (I've got literally several thousand posts on this blog about it).

And now we have arrived at the starkest expression of this business-over-humans attitude yet. Trump wants people to get back to work. Dan Patrick thinks that a few dead oldsters is a small price to pay for keeping The Economy humming along. The line-up of commentators arguing that, well, sure, human life is nice and all, but you have to balance that against a healthy economy-- well, it's staggering. And this is not people arguing, "It's just the flu--nothing to worry about." The argument is that lives would be lost, but The Economy is more important.

It's not new or surprising. I've argued for a while that many of the dysfunctions of our society exist because of the ways we have valued what's best for business over what's best for citizens. Yes, yes, yes, I know-- without a functioning economy of some sort, humans tend to starve. But without any functioning moral center, economies tend to rot from the center, doing a crappier and crappier job for more and more people while a handful of wealthy enjoy a nice massage from the invisible hand.

We've been trending more and more in the latter direction, which is how we arrive at the spot where alleged serious people seriously suggest that Grampa should die so that the Dow Jones can more quickly bounce back.

This is what valuing The Economy over actual human beings gets you--a ranking of human beings based on their economic value, as set by whoever is on top. It gets you the President of the country seriously suggesting that Easter, the central holiday of the Christian faith that so many of these invisible hand-lickers claim is dear to their heart-- Easter should be used as a photo op so that the Economy can pose for a glossy photo showing how healthy it is, and if some people have to die for that to happen, oh, well.

Look-- no pathology grows inside the education system. Every problem, every bad thing, every crappy dysfunction in the system, migrated there from the culture at large. Every problem schools have is a reflection of the culture at large.

So it's important to remember that these invisible hand advocates of human sacrifice are some of the same people who want to rebuild education, privatize it, inject business dna into its bones. And right now, they are telling us loud and clear what their values are--

The Economy matters more than people. The needs of business are more important than the needs of humans. If some low-value humans have to be sacrificed so that business runs more smoothly and profitably, well, that's as it should be. Every little meat widget should aspire to be a really useful widget, happily doing whatever it takes to make some deserving master of the universe more wealthy, because that's where the worth of a meat widget lies.

Yes, yes, yes-- a functioning economy is necessary, and we can't all just eat berries and toss wildflowers at each other. But an economy that does not value human beings is a shitty thing, asking people to settle for shitty treatment, demanding that they settle for shitty conditions, and, apparently, insisting that they give up their lives for shitty reasons.

So what's my answer? I don't know-- I've mulled on this for decades as I've watched capitalism turn progressively more destructive and anti-human. I believe that just as any political system can be turned into an authoritarian nightmare, any economic system can be infected with evil. I have no patience with "If we just shifted to System X, everything would be okay" arguments. And while I deeply believe that an important function of government is to protect citizens from large, powerful wealth centers and their tendency to be rapacious and oppressive, I don't believe that you can pass legislation that will force people to embrace a moral core. So, I don't know.

But I know this-- these people should be given as little say as possible over what happens in public education. They have told us, keep telling us, and are telling us right now that they are opposed to a human-centered education system, one that doesn't simply manufacture meat widgets for The Economy's consumption.

I think our highest purpose is to take care of each other, and some days I despair of finding any way to communicate that to some folks. I don't know how to explain to someone who doesn't get it that you are supposed to care about other people. There are business-tilted people who still understand it; I'm hoping one of them can pass the message up the line.

But schools should not be businesses. Schools should not be subverted to business interests, most particularly because that path leads you inevitably to a place where you decide that some students have to sacrifice their lives. No, not all at once. Not in a single pandemic or a single day. But it's not okay to demand that people sacrifice their lives a day at a time, year after year, either.

If we don't value human beings more than business, more than the economy, more than the clammy grasp of the invisible hand, then what are we even doing? And why in God's name would we want to be doing it in schools?

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Why Teach Literature Stuff: #3 Knowing Stuff Is Useful

When I was teaching, and I had extra time on my hands, I would reflect on the work--the whys and hows and whats. So in solidarity with my former colleagues, I'm going to write a series about every English teacher's favorite thing-- teaching literature, and why we do it. There will be some number of posts (I don't have a plan here).

Also, it would be nice to write and read about something positive, and I don't know anything much more positive than what teachers do and why they do it.

It is easy to fall into the habit of thinking that school is about taking material in so that one can just spit it out again on command, like some bites of vegetable that one holds in ones mouth but neither chews nor swallows.

But it is useful to know stuff. Not in a get a good score on the test way, but in a live your life way. Yes, it's useful because it helps you understand the world and how to be in it (see #2). But there's more to it.

You can see patterns, and see that this thing over here is a lot like that thing over there. You can see that events over here are unfolding much like those events way back then. In my years in the classroom, I taught an awful lot by analogy, by examples. The foundation for that was my old-fashioned liberal arts education; I know a little bit about a lot of things, but not everything about anything. And to be able to pull in connections that meant something to my students, I read up on current youth cultury stuff (for a while I knew waaaayyyy more than I wanted to about The Hills).

I know a little bit about a lot of things the only way someone can-- I read. And that has made a difference in my ability to see patterns and similarities and differences, which are all things you absolutely can't do unless you know stuff.

It's useful to know stuff because it makes you harder to gaslight. If you don't know stuff, you're at the mercy of people who just make shit up and try to pass it off as truth. If you know stuff, you are innoculated against that.

If you know stuff, you get more jokes. Really. So much humor depends on the joke-teller being able to access the stuff you already know. The more you know, the more jokes you get.

There is no down side. Nobody ever says, "Damn, my life took a bad turn because I read too much, because I know too many things."

And here's the thing-- the more you read, the more stuff you know.

This is the beauty, the genius of writing at all. It lets you share your thoughts, your ideas, your knowledge, with people you can't see , don't know, will never meet or aren't even born yet. It is one of the biggest challenges we face as humans-- to communicate what we think and feel to other human beings, and it's hard enough with the ones right in front of us, but writing and reading let us bridge space and time.

The testing movement reducing reading to a bunch of skills has rejected the value of content, but in reading literature, content is king. To read is to learn, and knowing stuff is useful. And the very best part-- when you teach students about reading material with real heft and richness and value, you teach them how to teach themselves.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Where Is Teaching's Dr. Fauci?

There are Dr. Fauci fan clubs already thriving around the country, in honor of the physician who has managed to thread the thorny needle that is being a nation's medical guide in these challenging times. He's a trusted voice, an expert in his field. He's a reminder that "leading US physician" is a thing, like the Surgeon General is a thing.

So where is the Dr. Fauci for teaching?

This came up in a discussion about nationalizing health care when one person observed that it could end up as disaster, like having Betsy DeVos in charge of education.

Education is different, I pointed out, because teachers have always been boxed out of all leadership positions. Which sucks, and explains a lot, and not just the last thirty-five years of reformster baloney.

Other professions are in charge of their own professions. They're in charge of their training; you can't hand out medical degrees unless you're certified by a bunch of doctors. Ditto for training lawyers or nurses or physical therapists. But any college that wants to start cranking out teachers just has to satisfy some bureaucrats at the state capitol. And these days, you can even set up an "alternative pathway" to teaching and all you need to do is convince some lawmakers to let you do it.

Training for the profession? Done by other members of the profession. Entrance to the profession? Lawyers and doctors and physical therapists have to convince other members of the profession to certify them. But teacher schools include many professors who wouldn't last five minutes in a real K-12 classroom, and the gatekeepers of the profession  include folks like the notably non-teacher folk running the bogus edTPA test.

If you want to move into leadership or supervisory rolls, again, you only have to satisfy some bureaucrats. Hell, you don't even have to do that. You just have to convince some board to hire you, even if your only experience is two years in a classroom via Teach for America, or the Broad Academy where your only certification of educational leadership skill is Eli Broad saying, "I'm a very rich guy and I say this person gets to be a superintendent."

State education leadership positions? Strictly political. National? Ditto. Lawyers and doctors depend on the certification and endorsement of boards of fellow professionals to advance (though lawyers have started getting a dose, now that their professional recommendations are ignored in favor of strictly political appointments of judges).

All of the mechanism for determining what it takes to be a teacher and how to tell a good teacher from a bad teacher is in the hands of politicians, bureaucrats and other amateurs who don't know what the heck they're talking about. If there is any single plague bedeviling teaching, it is this-- the entire profession is overseen by non-teachers.

So here we are, a few weeks deep in a tremendous disruption, and while there's a voice of authority to speak for the medical aspects, there is no one to speak to the challenges of shutting down the bulk of US school systems, nobody but a secretary of education who wants to see public education gutted, a thousand opportunistic profiteers, and a wild web of edu-celebrities adapting their brand to the current crisis. Nobody to provide needed trustworthy info, even ever-so-gently correcting the prevaricator-in-chief.

I don't know of a way to remove the entrenched power structure that now rules teaching, particularly in a era in which actual expertise in a field is discounted and disrespected. But wouldn't it be cool to see a press conference in which someone was introduced as a leading teacher speaking on behalf of a panel of leading teachers about what schools can do to handle these times. Teachers can handle things without such a person, because teachers are used to working with minimal, non-existent or even obstructionist leadership. But still, wouldn't it be cool.

Why Teach Literature: #2 Humanity

When I was teaching, and I had extra time on my hands, I would reflect on the work--the whys and hows and whats. So in solidarity with my former colleagues, I'm going to write a series about every English teacher's favorite thing-- teaching literature, and why we do it. There will be some number of posts (I don't have a plan here).

Also, it would be nice to write and read about something positive, and I don't know anything much more positive than what teachers do and why they do it.

Young humans routinely work on the oldest questions.How can I fully be my best realm self? How does the world work, and how is one supposed to be in it?

These questions appear in a million different guises, many of them not obviously deep or profound. What should I wear today? Who will I sit with at lunch? Is it okay if laugh at that? Is it not normal that I'm not interested in that? If people know this about me, will they hate me? Am I ever going to find someone with whom I can share a special connection? Am I weird?

Reading provides students with an opportunity to see beyond their immediate surroundings, where everything they know about the world, about being human, even about themselves, is taught to them by a small group of peers and a limited number of adults. Reading shows therm other people, other cultures, other worlds, other ways of being. Reading shows what it has meant to be human in other times and places.

Reading illuminates the debates about all these issues. Authors make their case for a world of mutual support or dog eat dog competition. Authors argue for the importance of just one person or the value of the collective. Authors try to capture what it means to be a friend or parent, what it means to love somebody. And one of the beauties is that there are a wide range of arguments being made. My beat was mostly US literature, and we cycled through the many different views of the world, from Puritans through Romantics and Realists and Modernists, and as the year progressed, we could talk about each while comparing and contrasting what they believed was true and right (and if they even believed in "true" and "right"). This allows a richness in discussion that was fed directly by whatever concerns the students brought into my classroom.

It should be said, too, that to teach this stuff, you have to do the work. As you slide into each work, you have to really get what that author sees about the world, why they see what they see. Somehow you have to slide from one worldview into another so that you can teach one clearly. Multiple times a year, my students would hear this from me: "I'm not here to tell you these folks were right or that they were wrong, but I want you to see clearly how they saw their world. Whether you accept it or reject it for your own life is your own choice."

Doing the work also means examining your own biases and beliefs, your own ideas about how the world works and how to be human in it. If you are cruising on autopilot, you can't do this aspect of literature justice. Thoreau says to live deliberately, and that applies here, even if you think he was generally full of it. This means that sometimes whatever particular issue you're wrestling with may leak into your classroom. That's okay. And you can be honest about it (without letting the leak become a swamp that sweeps your whole class away). It's part of the modeling, the teaching.

Teachers of literature are often drawn to the language, the words, the structure of how they're put together, which words are chosen. Spotting meter and rhythm, moving phraseology, figures of speech, all that fun stuff. And it has value. But the teacher c an't drift over the line to where you're teaching your students that the literature is just a particular bunch of words on the page. The words mean something, tell us something.

And students will regularly raise the question, as you probe and analyze, "What makes you think the author was trying to say anything except what the words literally say?" The fair answer is that we don't, and that the author may have just been trying to tell a story the best way he knew how. That doesn't matter. Intentionally or not,  the author embedded beliefs about humanity and the world in the work, because no writer sits down and says, "I'm going to deliberately write about people who don't act like people set in a world that doesn't work like the world." Even writers of bad trash, who do both of those things, don't think that's what they're doing.

The beauty--well, one beauty-- of literature is that it can make a rich spectrum of human experience available and accessible to anybody who can get their hands on the printed (or screen-projected) word. We are the only animal that can learn from other peoples' experiences, or from imaginary experiences. We get to be on the receiving end of authors who are trying to somehow capture something true about existence in a string of words. Which is, in itself, something to grasp about being fully human in the world.

The high-stakes testing regime stands against all of this, with their assumption that there is only one right way to read any work of literature, coupled with their belief that one can clip out a few paragraphs and absorb them quickly, while the clock ticks, and select that one true view. It's a narrow, cheap view of literature and, by extension, of the humanity it contains.

Literature's humanity is also short- changed by the reading skills crowd that sees reading as just a bucket in which to carry context-free skills like making inferences or using context clues, as if these skills can exist divorced from any content or understanding. The suggestion is that the important part of being a human in the world is not to know things, but to do things, specifically things that someone else values enough to pay you for the doing. This is not a very rich view of humanity, either.

So teach literature so that students can see the full breadth and depth of the answers about the world and being human in it, and in the seeing, get a better sense of what their best selves look like.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Protecting Students In The Screen Age: An Action Tool For Parents And Teachers

It has been just a month since this piece ran at Forbes.com, but what a month. In some ways, the protections for students regarding screens are even more important.

It has been a decade since I was introduced to the idea of a 1:1 classroom—a school in which every single student carried a computing device—and I never regretted it for a moment. Having those tools always at my students’ fingertips was extraordinarily useful for my classroom practice, and I would never have willingly given it up.


The constant presence of computers in classrooms has created education, security and privacy issues far faster than many schools or parents can cope, and trying to teach students about “digital citizenship” felt at times like trying to empty Lake Erie with a paper cup.

If data is the new oil, then schools are an untapped ocean-sized reservoir. And students, parents, and schools have been slow to guard that ocean—far slower than the companies want to tap it.
Do you think this would work better if we turned the screen on?
Google has perhaps led the pack in offering both hardware and software that was appealing inexpensive and functional. Now the state of New Mexico is suing Google for using those tools to hoover up student data without parental consent. Parents are increasingly concerned about the technology in school, while at the same time, ed tech is pushing its way into more and more of education world, from personalized learning which most often means a student in front of a screen, all the way down to computerized pre-school.

In response to this issue, the Children’s Screen Time Action Network has released a “Screens in Schools Action Kit.

The kit provides parents and teachers both with information and explanations that help lay out the issues, as well as providing the language with which to discuss these issues (for folks whose position is “This stuff bothers me, but I’m not even sure want exactly to say about it”). It’s not arguing for the eradication of tech, but a balanced, measured approach:

With little proven benefit and potentially great harm, it is prudent to limit the use of digital devices in schools until such time as these devices can be shown to be safe for children and good for their learning.

The kit comes in four sections.

The Problem lays out the issues, including the relevant research about screen time’s effects on learning, health and social-emotional well-being. It also looks at the problems of privacy and data misuse.

Tools For Parents includes guides to important questions that parents can ask and fact sheets about ed tech. It also offers an assortment of templates for everything from petitions to letters to the superintendent to sample policy recommendations.

Tools For Educators offers more research and data about screens, some policy recommendations, as well as some of the arguments about ed tech written by leaders and commenters on the field.

And finally, a Further Reading section provides an extensive list of resources for more study on the issues involved.

The issues surrounding computer technology in the classroom in the classroom are not simple; the solution is neither to remove them entirely or to give them unrestricted free rein. But so far, the bulk of the power in the discussion has rested with those who stand to most benefit from technology use in school. This kit helps provide parents and educators with the tools they can use to work for a better balance.

The materials in the kit are printable, though, ironically, you’ll need to give an email address to get access to the full free kit.
Originally posted at Forbes.com.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Why Teach Literature Stuff: #1 What Is It?

When I was teaching, and I had extra time on my hands, I would reflect on the work--the whys and hows and whats. So in solidarity with my former colleagues, I'm going to write a series about every English teacher's favorite thing-- teaching literature, and why we do it. There will be some number of posts (I don't have a plan here).

Also, it would be nice to write and read about something positive, and I don't know anything much more positive than what teachers do and why they do it. 

So what are we even talking about? The word "literature" suggests some special quality that is elevated beyond just reading stuff like a cereal box or a blog post. Everybody has an opinion about what qualifies and what does not, and some people feel pretty damn strongly about those opinions.

The frame I used is a modified version of what I learned from my own high school English teacher, and I find it useful for sorting things out. Our four categories are:


Classics have been tested by time. That requires a couple of generations. It's easier, perhaps, to see the process with music. Particular music has its big popularity when it's new, then a nostalgia bump when the people who grew up with it inflict it on their own children. Eventually, if people still listen to it, it's because they find something there that speaks to them. Initial popularity is not always a good measure; "In The Mood" was not a huge hit when it was new, nor was "Bohemian Rhapsody." Now they're iconic.

So there has to be time, and then there has to be something universal in the work that still speaks to people after decades have passed. Romeo and Juliet still makers sense to folks, to the point that it can be refilmed or restaged every decade or so and be successful. (Note: not true of all Shakespeare).

Note that when I say a work speaks to us today, there are three elements in that formulation-- the work, us, and today. The Canon, or any ideas about the Canon, can't be set in stone. Who we are and what is going on in our world changes what messages matter or can cut through. Almost everything in the Canon, regardless of whose canon you're talking about, has been ion and out of favor over the years. That's okay; the very act of re-evaluating the Canon is part of the value in teaching literature-- "What is this work saying, what is it saying to us, and how is it saying it" are fundamental questions that make us better by being wrestled with.

In fact, whether a work is classic or not can depend on presentation and framing. I was required for years to teach Julius Caesar, and could not sell it to save my life (10th graders are not, it turns out, electrified by political intrigue). But when I started framing it as a play about trying to read the signs-- can you tell when something bad is about to happen, and having read them, avoid it--it clicked. Likewise, Hamlet doesn't fly as a play about palace intrigue, but if you ask adolescents "What would you do if your life sucked so much you couldn't stand it and you had nowhere to turn to deal with it," they get it. It's all about the big questions-- how does the world work, and what does it mean to be a human in it?

Great Works:

There are works of art that are important, even if nobody really relates to them. Ulysses is important and influential, but you didn't really read it. Moby Dick is iconic, but Oh My God in heaven, what a slog to get through. Like a movie that's important in film history, but impossible to sit through, some works hold an important spot in the history of literature or of a culture, but modern readers are unlikely to forge a relationship with them. These are often the works that hardcore fans read--but nobody else (like, say, Shakespeare's histories).

You'll know you're teaching one of these if you spend a lot of time trying to explain to your students why anybody should care about the work at all, rather than showing them the connections to the world they live in. Important works don't have to pass a test of time, either. They can be important right now.

Good Trash:

Throughout history, few writers have sat down thinking, "I will create a universal classic that will live through the ages." (Walt Whitman counts as an exception.) Mostly, writers sit down and say things like "I am hungry and would like money to buy food" or "I have some cool ideas and would like to draw a crowd to look at them" or even just "I have to write just like I have to breathe, but I do hope somebody will pay me to do it." Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Big Billy Shakespeare-- these were all guys who were trying to get the bills paid.

This was a revelation to 14-year-old me, who imagined that authors were pursuing some elevated heavens-inspired genius. I think the most important implication of this idea is that it means that writers live/lived in the exact same world as the rest of us.

My teacher used the "trash" label a bit ironically, meaning simply work written out of a need for money or an audience--and that's not a bad thing. The questions may be small, the issues simple (how do I get away from a bloodsucking monster in an old house). What distinguishes good trash is that it is well put together. The characters act like real humans, and the prose is smooth and well-constructed. Stephen King writes good trash. Virtually all classic started out as good trash when they were new.

Bad trash:

The motives are the same, but the material is awful. Characters don't act like recognizable humans, but function as two-dimensional plot engines. The writing itself is awkward and clunky, and often not even very precise or clear. Dan Brown writes bad trash. The Twilight books are bad trash.

Not time nor perspective elevate bad trash. At best they serve as good negative examples.

We can teach from any of these categories, but we do so for different reasons. Classics deal with the big questions and show students new connections to their world. Great works each carry their own reason for being. Good trash is great for growing readers because it is more immediate and relatable. Bad trash-- well, as I said, negative examples.

Oh-- and super important note-- all of this applies equally to fiction and non-fiction.

In the days ahead I'm going to dive further into the why of all this. I would be delighted to read your thoughts and responses in the comments. I'm really hoping to kind of hide for a bit back in the work I always loved while we try to navigate the current craziness.

The Ed Tech Vultures Circle

Some ed tech companies and their investors are busily imagining that the coronaviral hiatus may be their Katrina. Natural disaster plus government botch job equals the board being swept clean, allowing players a golden opportunity to move in and clean up.

I see folks on Twitter wondering where Betsy DeVos is, why the USED isn't offering more guidance to schools as they navigate this mess. Could be because this situation suits her just fine, and public schools being shut down is a dream come true.

But while some folks may view this shutdown as a philosophical opportunity, for some it's all about the investment opportunities. Like Katrina's aftermath, vulture capitalism at its finest.

My email is filing up with pitches from more companies than I've ever heard of, all variations on "Your readers (aka our prospective customers) would love to hear about our cool product that is just the thing for dealing with the current pandemic crisis." While I am sure that some companies sincerely believe they have help they can offer at this time, I am equally sure that those companies are not trying to wring a bunch of client-building PR out of it. I'm seeing these pitches because I'm an education blogger at Forbes.com--if these things are coming to me, then the big-time education journalists must be drowning in the stuff.

Then there's this sort of thing. Take a look at this interview over at Goldman Sachs (Motto: "Honest, we haven't done anything to tank the economy, lately"). We're talking to Adam Nordin, whose beat is listed as the "education technology sector" for the Investment Banking Division; his LinkedIn profile says he's a lawyer/CPA, a Partner and Managing Director in the Technology Group, where his main responsibilities are M&A, IPOs, and leveraged finance. Previously he worked for Barclays (2010-2018) and Credit Suisse (1998-2010), in both cases counting "education technology" in his areas of focus. His degrees are all in accounting and finance.

The interview was run last Tuesday (amazing how we now track things by days rather than weeks or months), and he already smelled money:

COVID-19 could sharply accelerate the adoption of online learning in higher education. Historically, online learning in universities was largely a function of self-selection...This is the first time many universities will have to rely on a fully online experience for their undergraduate population. Doing so could dramatically accelerate the long-term acceptance of online learning. 

In other words, it used to be that only people who wanted to learn online chose to, but now that many people will be forced to, the market should grow.

Nordin, who you will recall has no actual training or experience in education, has his own thoughts about why ed tech adoption has laggeed, and why it is poised for success now. Low bandwidth and "rudimentary data compression" made real-time interactions difficult, but now--

Today, online learning can offer live virtual classrooms—aided by ample bandwidth and advanced cloud-based collaboration technologies— that rival, or even exceed, an in-class experience.

Yep-- taking the class on computer over the internet is actually better than doing it live. Except that, no, not really. Consider this Forbes report from a decade ago, surveying business leaders and finding that pretty much everybody considers live meetings better for things like leadership, engagement, inspiration, decision-making, accountability, candor, plus a variety of other intangibles. Has the tech gotten better since 2009? Sure. That much better? That's a tough case to make.

But Nordin things that AR and VR are going to make collaboration in virtual environments all the rage.

Meanwhile, the sector has seen "strong capital flows" in the last three-to-five years, particularly as "the structural barriers to adoption are falling."

Other drivers? Nordin says that "younger students expect a more digital experience and are increasingly judging their university choices on this factor" which-- is that actually true? Other than wanting a good wi-fi hookup and decent phone reception, are the youngsters really clamoring for digitized classrooms? Nordin also notes that universities are short on money, and ed tech is cheaper than traditional stuff, and that matters because--

It’s not just the Provost that weighs in on the debate of online versus traditional higher education—the CFO and President are now involved. 

In other words, as we get more non-education people to weigh in on these education decisions, it's an ed tech win. And if you think that at some point we're going to worry about how well the online tech actually educates anyone, well, no. It's the same old ed tech baloney that we've seen and heard before:

In short, data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence are enabling both students and teachers to gain a more customized and enriching experience. Learning assessments can detail precisely how, why and on what dimensions a student needs to focus to succeed. Professors hosting live-streaming classes have rich, personalized data that show each student’s entire performance profile, complete with their challenges and focus areas, enabling them to drive an individualized discussion with every student.

Data crunching, and fake artificial intelligence. Doing granular analysis of student learning (as long as you only measure the things that a computer program can measure). Teachers can talk to students because software will tell them things about that student, just in case the teacher lacks the power of seeing, listening, and relating to other carbon based life forms.

There will always be a place for the traditional campus experience, but online learning is here to stay. 

As will pitches that promise things that ed tech can't deliver.

As school closures drag on, there are two schools of thought on the ed tech incursion. The ed tech vultures of Coronavirus Katrina are sure that once pushed into using the products, teachers, parents and students will fall in love and never want to go back. Others suspect that once forced to deal with this stuff, students, teachers and parents will rediscover everything there is to love about traditional live-action 3D education.

Not to say that some of these tools may well turn out to be useful in the weeks ahead. Time will tell. In the meantime, the ed tech vultures are circling, hoping that the current crisis will provide them with a bounteous feast.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Virus and Vouchers

US education has essentially ground to a halt. Districts have announced that no work done distantly will count, largely out of fear that they cannot properly serve IEP students and therefor distance schooling would be illegal (aka "likely to prompt a lawsuit from a special ed family's lawyer). Where distance learning is occuring, the gap between haves and have-nots is being highlighted as it grows. Some districts, staring into the digital divide, have thrown up their hands and said, "We don't have the resources to build a bridge across that." Meanwhile, here's a district that might buy 700 hot spots for its students (cost approx: $200K).

I've been in a couple of conversations now with folks who have said that if the public schools can't educate everyone, they should just give the parents the money (the feds seem to be thinking in a different direction--just bypass IDEA). This is just another way to state the case for vouchers, but it's a framing that makes it clear why I think vouchers, in all their various forms, are a lousy idea.

Because what a voucher says is, "To get out of any obligation to educate your child, we're just going to cut you a check." It says, "You know, educating your child is hard. I'm willing to write you a check in order to get out of doing it."

That's a lousy deal. You can argue that the public education system has failed in too many schools to deliver on the promise of a free, quality education for each student. But I have never believed that the best way to deal with that unmet promise is to just say, "Okay, well, never mind then. We'll just stop trying, and we'll cut you a check to stop complaining about it."

Vouchers are not about empowering parents. Parents give up their right to a full, free, appropriate quality education for their children and in return they get whatever the market is willing to give them for the amount of money they've been handed.

Nor is "vote with your feet" an empowering slogan; it's just another way for the market to say, "You don't like what we're giving you for your money? Fine. There's the door. Have a nice life."

Vouchers are an abdication of the government's responsibility to make good on the progress of an education for every young citizen. The coronavirus hiatus is really highlighting how big the gap between different education constituencies is; writing parents a check to get them to look away is not the answer.

ICYMI: Stay In Place Edition (3/22)

Well, here we all are, in place (except for some of you who think this is a fake and some of you who think nothing should interfere with spring break). Frankly, the reading this week has been a bit....well, repetitive. But here are some things to peruse while you're holding down your couch.

An Open Letter To Seniors

Louisiana's teacher of the year has some thoughts for high school seniors, whose big year is threatening to end with a whimper instead of a bang. Courtesy of the indispensable Mercedes Schneider, who also has some thoughts of her own for seniors facing this derailment.

Welcome To Your Hastily Prepared Online College Course

From McSweeney's. Probably the funniest thing you'll read this week.

AI Is an Ideology, Not a Technology

Intriguing contrary opinion about the artificial intelligence movement, courtesy of Jaron Lanier at Wired. A thoughtful look at the reasons to not be an AI fan.

The Demise of the Great Education Saviors  

Kevin Carey at the Washington Post looks at how choice and charters have lost political clout at this point. Maybe.

Only Ten Black Students  

Meanwhile, in NYC, you may recall a big flap last year over the proportionately tiny number of Black students who made it into Stuyvesant High School, one of the city's elite selective schools. Well, one year later, after carefully considering the issues-- nothing has changed at all. The New York Times has Eliza Shapiro on the story.

They Didn't Have A Chance To Say Goodbye

Yeah, I virtually never see eye to eye with Erika Sanzi, and am not exactly a fan of Education Post. But if you ignore those two things, this piece about the emotional cost for students of the sudden ending of school is on point. In PA we may feel it extra, since the governor shut down schools late Friday afternoon, after many students were already gone.

Coronavirus opens the gap  

This piece from the Philadelphia Enquirer takes a look at how the coronaviral break highlights that some districts can give every student a computer, and other districts, not so much.

Meanwhile, there are a million pieces about how you too can better handle the learning from home thing. I got tired of reading and eye-rolling at them about Tuesday.

So hang in there, stay safe, and order food from your local restaurants that are still trying to stay open, and any other local small business you can support.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

AI Is Not Going To Drive Trucks (Or Your Classroom)

From Jalopnik, we get this report from the world of self-driving trucks. Mark it the gazillionth cautionary tale for folks who believe that AI will be able to take over critical human functions any time soon.

The article takes a look at Starsky Robotics, a company that was in the business of producing unmanned semis for public highways. Now it's just in the business of shutting down. The co-founder, Stefan Seitz-Axmacher gave an interview to Automotive News that's behind a paywall but Jalponik shares some of the highlights.

Not as smart as it looks.
Starsky is closing up shop because they cant get backers, and they lost their backers because they insisted on putting an emphasis on safety rather than cool new features

But a problem emerged: that safety focus didn’t excite investors. Venture capitalists, Seltz-Axmacher said, had trouble grasping why the company expended massive resources preparing, validating and vetting his system, then preparing a backup system, before the initial unmanned test run. That work essentially didn’t matter when he went in search of more funding.

“There’s not a lot of Silicon Valley companies that have shipped safety-critical products,” he said. “They measured progress on interesting features.”

Seitz-Axmacher also notes that faith in self-driving vehicles is waning in the venture capitalist world, mostly because they've spent a lot of money and self-driven cars still aren't right around the corner, with a bundle of problems still unsolved. Seitz-Axmacher points at "edge cases," the rare-but-significant events that can happen. In driving, these events are rare but significant, like a deer or small child darting into the road. And "teaching" the AI about these events gets exponentially harder and more expensive as the events are rarer.

This is the flip side of our old issue, standardization. To make a measurement algorithm work, you have to set up a system that excludes all the edge events; one simple way to do that is multiple choice test questions. This is why AI still hasn't a hope in hell of actually assessing writing in any meaningful way-- because a written essay will often include edge elements. In fact, the better essays are better precisely because the writer has included an edge element, a piece of something that falls outside the boundaries of basic expectations.

Self-driving vehicles can't use a standardization solution, can't require all roads and drivers to follow the exact same set of rules, and so they have no choice but to find a way to "teach" the AI how to deal with the messy reality of human behavior on US streets. Well, they do have a choice-- they can just not do it, but that keeps ending up in the death of bystanders.

Seitz-Axmacher goes into detail in a blog post which, again, offers parallels to the world of education. For instance, his painful realization that investors like safety far less than they like cool features. The equivalent in education is the desire to promote cool features, features that will help your product stand out in a crowded marketplace, over whether or not the product actually works, and works all the time.

He gets into other problems with the "AV (autonomous vehicle) space," but I'm particularly struck by this:

The biggest, however, is that supervised machine learning doesn’t live up to the hype. It isn’t actual artificial intelligence akin to C-3PO, it’s a sophisticated pattern-matching tool.

AI isn't really AI. It's just pattern recognition algorithms, which, yes, is exactly the kind of fake AI that ed tech folks keep trying to sell to schools.

But wait-- didn't I read about Amazon having a whole fleet of driverless trucks doing their deliveries? Well, yes and no. Amazon is investing in self-driving vehicles, but its trucks are on the I-10; they are trained to handle one specific chunk of road. They have used the standardization route.

Seitz-Axmacher notes one other thing about his former industry-- it's loaded with bullshit to the point that people expect it. Okay, I'm paraphrasing a bit. But he sadly notes that presenting real, modest ac achievements in a sector filled with people trumpeting dramatic features, including plenty that they can't actually deliver, is hard. That tracks. If there's one thing that the ed tech industry does consistently, it's over-promise and under-deliver.

This kind of story is important to file away some place handy for one other reason-- because sooner or later somebody, maybe your brother-in-law or a thinky tank guy or a secretary of education, is going to say, "Gee, AI is revolutionizing all these other sectors, why not education?" The answer, in part, is that AI isn't doing nearly as much revolutionizing of anything as you keep hearing it is. Always--always--examine the claims. Real life is complex and messy and filled with "edge" events; it still takes a human to navigate.