Universities for artists: Know your purpose, know what you’re getting

A friend is in his 20s and wants to be a writer. He’s mucked around in college some without amassing enough credits to count towards anything, and he thinks he might want to start at a university again in order to become a better writer. I’ve been discouraging him, because of his age and his state goals. He started classes again this semester but seems disenchanted with them, and after talking for a while the other night, I wrote a long e-mail that summarized my views and why college is probably the wrong route for him:

If you said to me that you’re tired of working in coffee shops and want an office job in a corporation or government, a degree should be your number one priority. Not only is that not your goal, but your goal is to be a better writer. To accomplish that, school is at best a mixed bag.

At anything below the most elite schools, most students in intro-level writing courses are not particularly good writers or interested in becoming good writers (and even in elite schools, bad writers but good hoop-jumpers abound). Intro courses won’t necessarily be of much help to you. Most intro-level non-writing courses (like “Rocks for Jocks,” AKA geology) are likely to be even worse. My honors students say their classmates in classes like “Love and Romance in the Middle Ages” and “Intro to Art History” are barely literate; the honors students turn in bullshit they’ve slammed out the night before and get 100% because they are, most of them, functionally literate. They complain about not learning anything about writing in their other humanities classes. You will probably have to wade through at least a year or two of courses that provide almost no value to your stated goal—becoming a better writer—before you get a real shot at, say, English classes.

Once you are there, however, many professors aren’t especially interested in teaching, even in English classes, and the effect of many English classes on your writing skills might be small. Does reading Paradise Lost and Gulliver’s Travels and the Romantic poets in a Brit Lit I survey make you a better writer of contemporary fiction, essays, and criticism, if your professor / TA spends no time covering the basics of writing? Will sitting through a lecture on Beckett’s role in the Modernism / Postmodernism divide help you understand better metaphors in your writing, or help you construct a plot that has any actual motion?

The questions suggest the answers. I’m not saying these English classes will hurt you. But I’ve sat through a lot of those classes, and few have anything to do with writing, which is one of my many beefs with English departments and classes; too little time is spent building concrete writing and reading skills, and too much time is spent discussing works of some historical value and very little contemporary value (I’m not convinced Sister Carrie, which is one massive violation of the cliche “Show, don’t tell” will make you a better novelist today, any more than studying the math of the 1850s in its original context will make you a better mathematician).

Some professors teach close reading and who will really work with you to develop your writing skills, especially if you follow the advice I offer. But those experiences are at best hit-and-miss, and more often than not misses. They depend on the professor, and you won’t know if a class might be useful until you’re already in it.

Plus, getting to those classes will probably take a long time and a lot of money and hoop jumping. The more direct route for you is through a writers’ workshop, which almost all communities of any size have.

That’s the learning part of the equation. From the job/status/credential part of the equation, and as I’ve said before, the effect of school on labor market outcomes is quite binary: you have a degree and make a lot more money in the aggregate, or you don’t and you make a lot less money. Starting a degree without finishing it is one of the worst things you can do, speaking financially and in terms of opportunity cost. That’s why it’s so vital for you to either start and finish or not start.

If you were 18 and didn’t know what the hell else to do, I would tell you to go to college because your peers are doing it and most 18-year-olds don’t know anything and waste most of their time anyway. You could noodle around in a lot of classes and maybe learn something and at least you’ll finish with a degree. Beyond that, a lot of college happens between the lines, through living in dorms and developing a peer network. But you’re not 18, you already know something (you do), and you have a (presumed) goal that you don’t necessarily have to go through school to accomplish. If your goal changes—i.e. you decide you don’t want to work in retail or coffee or unskilled labor and you want to get some other kind of job—then my advice will change.

A distressingly small amount of actual learning goes on in college classrooms. You can see this in Arun and Josipka’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. You can read a different take by searching for “The Case Against Education,” which is the title of Bryan Caplan’s book concerning signaling / credentialism in education. Or you can look at the people around you, who might be the most compelling argument. People who are really determined to get education do get it, but outside of the hard sciences, there’s a LOT of bullshit. The stuff that isn’t bullshit will be hard for you to find. Not impossible, but hard. And you don’t get the monetary benefits without finishing.

The college wage premium is still real, but it only applies to people who actually want to work at jobs that require college degrees. If you want to be an engineer, go to college. In “How Liberal Arts Colleges Are Failing America,” Scott Gerber points out that “A degree does not guarantee you or your children a good job anymore. In fact, it doesn’t guarantee you a job: last year, 1 out of 2 bachelor’s degree holders under 25 were jobless or unemployed.” I look around the University of Arizona, and it’s clear to me that a variety of majors—comm and sociology are the most obvious—provide almost no real intellectual challenges and hence no real skills, whatsoever. The business school at the U of A seems better, but it’s still hard for me to ascertain, from the outside, if what goes on there really matters.

To recap: I don’t think going to school is bad or will hurt you. But I’m also not convinced that going to school is an optimal use of time / money for you.

I still think that, if you really want to be a writer, the absolute number one thing you have to do is write a lot—and want to write a lot, because the writing itself comes from the desire. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he discusses the research on the “10,000-hour rule,” or the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of a skill. I’m not totally convinced that 10,000 hours is the magic number, or that anyone can deliberately practice for 10,000 hours in a given field and master it, but the basic idea—that you have to spend a LOT of time practicing in order to achieve mastery—is sound. To the extent you want to be a writer and that you spend time in classes that are at best tangentially involved with being a writer, I think you are making a mistake in the way you’re allocating your limited time and resources. You might be better off, say, going to the library and reading every Paris Review interview, going back to the beginning, and writing down every quote that speaks to you.

All of us have 24 hours in a day. Any time you spend doing one thing can’t be spent doing another. If you want to become a writer, I think you should allocate most of your time to writing, not to classes, unless you want to be a writer in some officially sanctioned organ, like a newspaper.

Finally, if you want to be a better writer, write stuff (blog posts, novels, essays, whatever) and send them to me. I will give you more detailed feedback than 99% of your professors. With me, the price is also right.

Beyond that, I want to emphasize just how hit-and-miss my education was, especially now that I look back on it. This was clearest to me in high school: as a freshman and sophomore, I had three really good English teachers from whom I learned a lot: Thor Sigmar, Mindy Leffler, and Jack someone, who taught journalism but whose name now escapes me, though he was very good at what he did and had a very dry sense and hilarious of humor. He also drove a black Miata and was clearly in the closet, at least from the perspective of his students. Then I had two terrible teachers: one named Rich Glowacki, who, distressingly, appears to still be teaching (at least based on a cursory examination of Google, and another named Nancy Potter. The former did an excellent impression of a animatronic corpse and was fond of tests like “What color was the character’s shoe in Chapter 6?” Moreover, one time I came in to talk to him about the “literary terms” he wanted us to memorize for a test. He couldn’t define many of the terms himself; in other words, he was testing us on material that he himself didn’t know.

That moment of disillusionment has stayed with me for a very long.

The other, Nancy Potter, was so scattered that I don’t think anything was accomplished in her class. She also wrote a college letter of recommendation for me that was so screwed up, and so strewn with typos and non sequiturs, that my Dad and I had to rewrite it for her. When your 18-year-old student is a better and more competent writer than you, the teacher, something is seriously amiss.

In college, I went to Clark University, where pretty much all the professors in all the departments are selected for their interest and skill in teaching. I ran into few exceptions; one was a guy who appeared to be about a thousand years old and who taught astronomy. He has trouble speaking and didn’t appear to know what he wanted to speak about on any given day.

Now that I know more about universities, I can only assume he was on the verge of retirement, or was already emeritus, and had been given our class of non-majors because a) he couldn’t do much damage there and b) the department knew it was filled with students who were taking the class solely to fulfill the somewhat bogus science requirement. He didn’t do much damage, except for some infinitesimally small amount to Clark’s reputation, and I assume the other people in the department were happy to avoid babysitting duty.

He, however, was very much the exception at Clark.

Most public colleges and universities are quite different than Clark, and the teaching experience is closer to public high schools, with some good moments and some bad. If your goal is to be an artist, or to learn any kind of skill in depth, you could spend years paying tuition, taking prerequisites of dubious utility, and struggling to find the right teacher or teachers, all without actually accomplishing your goal: learning some kind of skill in-depth.

I don’t think this applies solely to writers, either. If you’re a programmer, there are hacker collectives, or user groups, or equivalents, in many places. Online communities are even more prevalent. I have no idea how good or useful such places and people are. But the price is right and the cost of entry is low. Determined people will find each other. If you’ve got the right attitude towards receiving and processing criticism, you should be ready to take advantage. Knowledgable people should be able to point you in the direction of good books, which are hard to find. You should signal that you’re ready to learn. If you do those things right, you can get most if not all of what you would normally get out of school. But you also have to be unusually driven, and you have to be able to function without the syllabus/exam/paper structure imposed by school. If you can’t function without the external imposition of those constraints, however, you’re probably not going to make it as an artist anyway. The first thing you need is want. The second thing you need is tenacity. The first is useless without the second.

Stories like “Minimum Viable Movie: How I Made a Feature-Length Film for $0″ should inspire you, especially because you need even less money to be a writer than you do to make a movie. Arguably you also need less money to be a musician than you do to make a movie, although I’m less knowledgable on that subject and won’t make absolute pronouncements on it.

Again, I am not anti-school, per se, but it is important to understand how much or most school is about signaling and credentialing, and how easy a lot of school is if you’re willing to stay quiet, keep your ducks in a line, and jump through the hoops presented. It’s also important to understand the people who benefit most from offering arts training: the instructors. They get a (relatively) light teaching load, the possibility of tenure, a cut of your tuition, and time and space to pursue their passion, while you pay for their advice. Getting a gig as a creative writing professor is pretty damn sweet, regardless of the outcomes for students. That doesn’t mean creative writing professors can’t be very good, or very helpful, or improve your work, or dedicated to teaching, but it does mean that you should be cognizant of what benefits are being derived in any particular economic transaction. When small amounts of money are involved, it’s easy to ignore the economic transaction part of school, but now that tuition is so high, it’s impossible for anyone but the stupendously rich to ignore financial reality, like who gains the most when you enroll in a creative writing seminar.

As a side note, I think we’re already starting to see a shift away from the college-for-everyone mentality (that’s what the posts by Gerber and others are doing). Ironically enough, the universities themselves are involved in a perverse loan-based system whose present incentives are eventually going to drive their customer base away through price hikes. Universities are still going to be good deals and useful for some people, but those people will probably turn out to be more intellectual and analytical—the kinds of people who will benefit from knowledge dissemination and who will ultimately feel the need to create new knowledge. I also suspect a lot of non-elite private schools are going to have even larger problems than public schools. This isn’t a novel argument, but that doesn’t make it any less real, or any less likely to happen.

Anyway, I’m broadening the view too far here. The important thing is that you understand yourself and understand the system that you’re entering and how it incentivizes its participants. If you understand that, I think you’ll increasingly understand my skepticism about the utility of college classes for someone in your situation.

Routing around network failure: public schools and community colleges

Dean Dad has an interesting post named “Three Flavors of Dual Enrollment,” which deals with high school students taking community college classes. Read the whole thing, but note this comment:

In the “everyone” version, the idea is to replace the last year or two of high school — widely acknowledged to be an academic wasteland — with the first year or two of college. Those who tout this version point out the time and cost savings to the student; some colleges have seemingly bought in, seduced by the promise of a mighty river of tuition.

I agree with the point about the dubiousness of many dual enrollment versions. That being said, the problem as a whole is a superficial one that really points to a larger problem in the way our society itself is structured: people aren’t children at the age of 16. As Paul Graham says in “What You’ll Wish You’d Known,” by the age, “Childhood was getting old.” Virtually everyone is biologically an adult at that age, and, perhaps not surprisingly, a lot of them are pretty annoyed at being treated like they’re still 10—which is what schools effectively do. And the problems of public schools mean they’re not really imparting much knowledge by that point—hence the “academic wasteland” comment earlier in his post.

Sixteen year olds are people, but schools don’t treat them as such. This is part of the point of The Case Against Adolescence and, to a lesser extent, of Adolescence: An Anthropological Inquiry. People can figure out that school is bogus. The smart ones want something better, and they often read essays like “Why Nerds Are Unpopular,” which explain exactly why high school is bogus. Community college is one outlet for these problems. Not an ideal one, as Dean Dad says, but it’s at least a possible one.

The best solution, of course, is the one Dean Dad posits: “If the high schools need fixing, then the high schools need fixing.” But you can’t really change the form of high school save through some form of charter school, voucher system, or moving to suburbs. There are lots of barriers to improving high schools, and you can read about them in this compilation post. Since high schools change with torturously slow speed, smart people try to route around the problem.

I agree with this: “the obvious remedy is to improve the junior and senior years of high school.” There’s no effective way to do this within the current constraints of school systems (local monopolies, nearly impossible to get rid of very bad kids or teachers). So the community college idea is probably a second- or third-best option. The high schools do need fixing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this alternative becomes more popular when high schools can’t be effectively fixed.

I would’ve been a good candidate for dual-enrollment—in Washington State, it’s called Running Start—if I hadn’t been such an idiot and sacrificed eighth – tenth grades on the alter of Starcraft. School seemed very small, and to most moderately smart people it probably still does. Although she’s writing in a different context, I think Megan McArdle points out the problem:

A significant number of teens didn’t know who Osama Bin Laden was until we killed him. I can’t believe it–and yet I do believe it. I didn’t know what Iran Contra was when I was in high school, and I was a sophomore when it happened. Teenagers live in their own little world, only tangentially connected to the one the rest of us occupy.

Teenagers do “live in their own little world”—the world adults put them in. It’s such a commonplace that McArdle can say it, and nobody comments the statement. Why should we expect students to behave otherwise? I wonder if the popularity of world-is-a-lie fiction (1984, Brave New World, Lord of the Flies) among high school students is in part because the smarter among them are dimly aware of how their own world is constructed. Teachers don’t really tell them, most of the time. I suspect most people don’t figure it out until college or later—by which point they don’t care much anymore.

Why Don’t Students Like School? – Daniel T. Willingham

Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom is too long a title for a book that is surprisingly good, especially given how short it is. Although the title mentions the “classroom,” the book is useful not only for teachers and students, but for anyone who needs to be aware of the cognitive processes involving in learning—which should be anyone involved in the knowledge economy, since that economy is based almost entirely on being smarter and more efficient than the next guy. The only way to accomplish that is through education—and not only the kind that goes on in schools.

Although Willingham’s book focuses on the “school” part of the equation, his advice can be translated elsewhere, to anyone who has information that must be imparted to others. He says students don’t like school in part because they’re being taught poorly. This probably isn’t news to anyone who has ever attended school. The problem is what “poorly” means and how it might be improved, both on the level of an individual teacher and on the institutional level at which K-12 education and universities operate. The two aren’t often treated as a single unit for teaching purposes, in part because K-12 teachers are just supposed to teach, while university instructors are also supposed to be doing research. Nonetheless, both obviously struggle with student (and sometimes teacher) boredom.

The problem goes beyond the classroom and into life: “[. . .] unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” In essence, we avoid thinking more than we embrace it, on average, which makes a certain amount of sense: the more we have to think about a particular thing, the less we can think about anything else. I’ve been dimly aware of this for a reasonably long time, in part because of Paul Graham’s essay Good and Bad Procrastination, where he says:

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.

Most of us probably spend most of our time on (a). In normal cognitive conditions, we’re probably at (b). Willingham (and teachers) want us to be at (c). He says, “Most of the problems we face are ones we’ve solved before, so we just do what we’ve done in the past.” But this does little for learning, and we have to find a space between what we already know and where we’d like to be. Too little, and we’re not really learning. Too much, and we’re likely to shut down because we don’t understand. You can’t really vector calculus to someone who doesn’t know geometry. You probably can’t teach regular calculus to someone who doesn’t.

People need opportunities to solve problems, not just be talked at. This is one reason lectures are often ineffective and/or boring: they evolved to solve the problem of paper being expensive and knowledge dissemination difficult. For their time and place in the Middle Ages, they were pretty effective. Today, however, when knowledge transmission in written form can be virtually free, lectures don’t make as much sense because in too many cases they don’t offer the chance to solve real problems. Yet teachers and professors keep using them in part out of habit.

Habit can be dangerous for both groups, unless the habit in question is the habit of breaking out of habits. Enthusiasm and boredom are both contagious. Willingham doesn’t talk about the two or how they interact, but most people like to be around those who are enthusiastic about doing something and dislike the opposite. When the person standing in front of a room doesn’t care, it’s probably not surprising that the room doesn’t care either. In my experience, better teachers have a childlike sense of wonder about the world, which makes them enthusiastic; weaker teachers don’t care. Apathy is the opposite of good teaching, and yet there are relatively few penalties against apathy in the school systems (the plural is important: there isn’t just one) operating in the United States. Willingham doesn’t discuss this, which might be a function of his method (he uses data whenever possible), an oversight, or simply beyond the scope of his argument.

He also doesn’t discuss one of the bigger problems with school: the relentless focus on GPAs and hoop jumping; Robin Hanson recently noted what might be the best advice I’ve ever read regarding studying in his post Make More Than GPA:

Students seem overly obsessed with grades and organized activities, both relative to standardized tests and to what I’d most recommend: doing something original. You don’t have to step very far outside scheduled classes and clubs to start to see how very different the world is when you have to organize it yourself.

Still, Willingham writes, “I don’t know why some great thinkers (who undoubtedly knew many facts) took delight in denigrating schools, often depicting them as factories for the useless memorization of information.” They probably did so because many schools were and are factories for the useless memorization of information. Just because one observes that, however, doesn’t mean that any memorization of facts is automatically useless. As he says on the next page, “Critical thinking is not a set of procedures that can be practiced and perfected while divorced from background knowledge.” But background knowledge is necessary, not sufficient, for critical thinking, and too many schools stop at background knowledge.

Perhaps the most useful thing teachers could to make school better is the same thing all professionals do: concentrate on ceaselessly improving their craft through incremental efforts at daily improvement. This is what we have to do for any kind of learning, and Willingham describes how we move from a state of no knowledge to shallow knowledge to deep knowledge in particular problem domains. People with no knowledge and who have some introduced tend not to retain that knowledge well; people who have shallow knowledge tend not to connect that knowledge to other knowledge; and people who have deep knowledge can fit new information into existing schemas, webs, or ideas much more effectively than those who can’t.

Books like Why Don’t Students Like School are a good place to start: I’ve changed some of my habits because of it, especially in terms of seeking feedback loops and engagement through things like polling, movement in physical space itself, and working toward asking questions that actively lead toward whatever it is I’m trying to get at—which usually involves close reading, understanding what the author is saying, or working toward analysis in papers. I focus more on the feedback loops involved in teaching, thinking, and memory. Those last two are important because “memory is the residue of thought.” This means we need to think if we’re going to remember things more effectively than we would otherwise, and this process requires dedicated practice: “If you don’t pay attention to something, you can’t learn it! You won’t remember much of the seminar if you were thinking about something else.” This might explain why I ban laptops from my classrooms: they encourage students to think about something else. But merely “thinking” isn’t enough: Willingham says “[. . .] a teacher’s goal should almost always be to get students to think about meaning.” One way to do this is simply by asking, but relatively few teachers appear to make this leap. Even that isn’t enough:

The emotional bond between students and teacher—for better or worse—accounts for whether students learn. The brilliantly well-organized teacher whom fourth graders see as mean will not be very effective. But the funny teacher, or the gentle storytelling teacher, whose lessons are poorly organized won’t be much good either. Effective teachers have both qualities. They are able to connect personally with students, and they organize the material in a way that makes it interesting and easy to understand.

We need practice to learn intellectually, just as we need practice at sports and music: “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.” But precisely what practice entails also remains unclear.

But the problems with Why Don’t Students Like School as a book remain. It a) has an irritating habit of using poorly formatted pictures and b) often feels under-researched. But the fact that its suggestions are real, concrete, and applicable make it useful to teachers in any capacity: many if not most of us have to teach something over the course of our lives, whether work processes to mentors, cooking to spouses, life skills to children, or technical skills to people on the Internet. And it’s sometimes vague: Willingham writes, “We are naturally curious, and we look for opportunities to engage in certain types of thought.” But what types do we try to think in? He doesn’t say. There are pointless pictures and graphs, no doubt designed to somehow make us remember things better but mostly an insult to our intelligence, as if we’re in high school instead of aspiring to teach high school and beyond.

Why Don't Students Like School? – Daniel T. Willingham

Daniel T. Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom is too long a title for a book that is surprisingly good, especially given how short it is. Although the title mentions the “classroom,” the book is useful not only for teachers and students, but for anyone who needs to be aware of the cognitive processes involving in learning—which should be anyone involved in the knowledge economy, since that economy is based almost entirely on being smarter and more efficient than the next guy. The only way to accomplish that is through education—and not only the kind that goes on in schools.

Although Willingham’s book focuses on the “school” part of the equation, his advice can be translated elsewhere, to anyone who has information that must be imparted to others. He says students don’t like school in part because they’re being taught poorly. This probably isn’t news to anyone who has ever attended school. The problem is what “poorly” means and how it might be improved, both on the level of an individual teacher and on the institutional level at which K-12 education and universities operate. The two aren’t often treated as a single unit for teaching purposes, in part because K-12 teachers are just supposed to teach, while university instructors are also supposed to be doing research. Nonetheless, both obviously struggle with student (and sometimes teacher) boredom.

The problem goes beyond the classroom and into life: “[. . .] unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” In essence, we avoid thinking more than we embrace it, on average, which makes a certain amount of sense: the more we have to think about a particular thing, the less we can think about anything else. I’ve been dimly aware of this for a reasonably long time, in part because of Paul Graham’s essay Good and Bad Procrastination, where he says:

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.

Most of us probably spend most of our time on (a). In normal cognitive conditions, we’re probably at (b). Willingham (and teachers) want us to be at (c). He says, “Most of the problems we face are ones we’ve solved before, so we just do what we’ve done in the past.” But this does little for learning, and we have to find a space between what we already know and where we’d like to be. Too little, and we’re not really learning. Too much, and we’re likely to shut down because we don’t understand. You can’t really vector calculus to someone who doesn’t know geometry. You probably can’t teach regular calculus to someone who doesn’t.

People need opportunities to solve problems, not just be talked at. This is one reason lectures are often ineffective and/or boring: they evolved to solve the problem of paper being expensive and knowledge dissemination difficult. For their time and place in the Middle Ages, they were pretty effective. Today, however, when knowledge transmission in written form can be virtually free, lectures don’t make as much sense because in too many cases they don’t offer the chance to solve real problems. Yet teachers and professors keep using them in part out of habit.

Habit can be dangerous for both groups, unless the habit in question is the habit of breaking out of habits. Enthusiasm and boredom are both contagious. Willingham doesn’t talk about the two or how they interact, but most people like to be around those who are enthusiastic about doing something and dislike the opposite. When the person standing in front of a room doesn’t care, it’s probably not surprising that the room doesn’t care either. In my experience, better teachers have a childlike sense of wonder about the world, which makes them enthusiastic; weaker teachers don’t care. Apathy is the opposite of good teaching, and yet there are relatively few penalties against apathy in the school systems (the plural is important: there isn’t just one) operating in the United States. Willingham doesn’t discuss this, which might be a function of his method (he uses data whenever possible), an oversight, or simply beyond the scope of his argument.

He also doesn’t discuss one of the bigger problems with school: the relentless focus on GPAs and hoop jumping; Robin Hanson recently noted what might be the best advice I’ve ever read regarding studying in his post Make More Than GPA:

Students seem overly obsessed with grades and organized activities, both relative to standardized tests and to what I’d most recommend: doing something original. You don’t have to step very far outside scheduled classes and clubs to start to see how very different the world is when you have to organize it yourself.

Still, Willingham writes, “I don’t know why some great thinkers (who undoubtedly knew many facts) took delight in denigrating schools, often depicting them as factories for the useless memorization of information.” They probably did so because many schools were and are factories for the useless memorization of information. Just because one observes that, however, doesn’t mean that any memorization of facts is automatically useless. As he says on the next page, “Critical thinking is not a set of procedures that can be practiced and perfected while divorced from background knowledge.” But background knowledge is necessary, not sufficient, for critical thinking, and too many schools stop at background knowledge.

Perhaps the most useful thing teachers could to make school better is the same thing all professionals do: concentrate on ceaselessly improving their craft through incremental efforts at daily improvement. This is what we have to do for any kind of learning, and Willingham describes how we move from a state of no knowledge to shallow knowledge to deep knowledge in particular problem domains. People with no knowledge and who have some introduced tend not to retain that knowledge well; people who have shallow knowledge tend not to connect that knowledge to other knowledge; and people who have deep knowledge can fit new information into existing schemas, webs, or ideas much more effectively than those who can’t.

Books like Why Don’t Students Like School are a good place to start: I’ve changed some of my habits because of it, especially in terms of seeking feedback loops and engagement through things like polling, movement in physical space itself, and working toward asking questions that actively lead toward whatever it is I’m trying to get at—which usually involves close reading, understanding what the author is saying, or working toward analysis in papers. I focus more on the feedback loops involved in teaching, thinking, and memory. Those last two are important because “memory is the residue of thought.” This means we need to think if we’re going to remember things more effectively than we would otherwise, and this process requires dedicated practice: “If you don’t pay attention to something, you can’t learn it! You won’t remember much of the seminar if you were thinking about something else.” This might explain why I ban laptops from my classrooms: they encourage students to think about something else. But merely “thinking” isn’t enough: Willingham says “[. . .] a teacher’s goal should almost always be to get students to think about meaning.” One way to do this is simply by asking, but relatively few teachers appear to make this leap. Even that isn’t enough:

The emotional bond between students and teacher—for better or worse—accounts for whether students learn. The brilliantly well-organized teacher whom fourth graders see as mean will not be very effective. But the funny teacher, or the gentle storytelling teacher, whose lessons are poorly organized won’t be much good either. Effective teachers have both qualities. They are able to connect personally with students, and they organize the material in a way that makes it interesting and easy to understand.

We need practice to learn intellectually, just as we need practice at sports and music: “It is virtually impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice.” But precisely what practice entails also remains unclear.

But the problems with Why Don’t Students Like School as a book remain. It a) has an irritating habit of using poorly formatted pictures and b) often feels under-researched. But the fact that its suggestions are real, concrete, and applicable make it useful to teachers in any capacity: many if not most of us have to teach something over the course of our lives, whether work processes to mentors, cooking to spouses, life skills to children, or technical skills to people on the Internet. And it’s sometimes vague: Willingham writes, “We are naturally curious, and we look for opportunities to engage in certain types of thought.” But what types do we try to think in? He doesn’t say. There are pointless pictures and graphs, no doubt designed to somehow make us remember things better but mostly an insult to our intelligence, as if we’re in high school instead of aspiring to teach high school and beyond.

The Art of Teaching — Gilbert Highet

For reasons not clear to me, The Art of Teaching is regularly recommended to teachers or people who want to be teachers. It’s not very good; skip it and read Why Don’t Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom instead, which has advice that’s both more practical and more theoretical than The Art of Teaching.

Highet says that “This book is called The Art of Teaching because I believe that teaching is an art, not a science.” He might be right. But he doesn’t present much evidence as to why it is, or how one can become a better artist in a significant way. A lot of his advice is obvious or vague. Among the obvious parts:

The first essential of good teaching… is that the teacher must know the subject That really means he must continue to learn it.
The second essential is that he must like it.

Among the vague parts:

Learn the peculiar patterns of [your students’] thought and emotions just as you would learn to understand horses or dogs—or other animals (for there are all kinds of different animals implicit in children: the very small ones are often more like birds)—and then you will find that many of the inexplicable things they do are easy to understand, and many of the unpardonable thing easy to forget.

What does it mean to “learn the peculiar patterns” of students’ thought? Highet never says. And I’m leaving aside the double aside he uses, or the fact that he compares students to animals. What’s next—the freshman whisperer?

The Art of Teaching is big on ideas and short on execution. There’s not much to say about it other than a warning to stay away from it.

Susan Engel doesn't get the problems with schools, but she'll tell us to "Teach Your Teachers Well" anyway

Susan Engel’s Teach Your Teachers Well completely misses the point. She says:

And if we want smart, passionate people to become these great educators, we have to attract them with excellent programs and train them properly in the substance and practice of teaching.

But the problems with teacher training probably have less to do with teacher training and more to do with institutional structures and incentives within teaching itself.

She says, “Our best universities have, paradoxically, typically looked down their noses at education, as if it were intellectually inferior.” The reason they probably look down upon education is that most educators, in the sense of public school teachers, have little incentive to excel at teaching once they earn tenure; consequently, most don’t. There’s been a lot of material published on this subject:

Taken together, these pieces paint the proverbial damning indictment of how teaches are hired, promoted, and (not) fired. Once you’ve read them, it’s hard to accept the dissembling evident from teachers’ unions. Given the research cited regarding the importance of good teachers and how few incentives there are to become a good teacher, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that education majors and graduate students typically have incredibly low standardized test scores and GPAs, as shown in the following chart (2002; source):

gre_scores_by_department

Notice that education is at the bottom. Should it be much of a surprise that the best universities, which are almost by definition hyper-competitive, look down on the profession? Susan Engel thinks so.

If you change the incentives around teaching, the programs that teach teachers will change, and so will the skill of the teachers more generally. Over the last thirty years, the larger economy has undergone a vast shift toward greater competition and freer markets—a vast boon to consumers. The market for primary and secondary education has seen virtually none of this competition, or, to the extent it has seen such competition, has seen it on a district-by-district level, which requires geographical moves to take advantage of it.

This topic is one I attend to more than others because I think I’d like teaching high school and that I might even be good at it. But the pay is low, even relative to academia (which isn’t most remunerative field in existence), and, worse, there’s virtually no extrinsic reward for excellence. Almost anyone with a slightly competitive spirit is actively driven out; even those who have it begin with probably lose it when they realize they’ll make the same money for less work than those with it. And you’ll basically have to spend an extra year or two and lots of money to get an M.A. in education, which sounds like a worthless degree.

If you teach computer science in most districts, you make as much as someone who teaches P.E. You might notice that, according to Payscale.com‘s average salary by major table, education majors usually start at about $36,200 and make a mid-career average of $54,100. That’s probably low because it doesn’t take into account the extra time off teachers get during the summer. Still, notice the numbers for Math: $47,000 / $93,600, Computer Science: $56,400 / $97,400 or even my own major, English: $37,800 / $66,900.

But I doubt money will solve the problem without institutional reform, which is very slowly picking up. Susan Engel’s comments, however, only muddy the water with platitudes instead of real solutions.

EDIT: And if you want further hilarity as far as teaching incentives go, check out Edward Mason’s story, “Union blocks teacher bonuses.” As Radley Belko says, “The Boston teacher’s union is blocking an incentive bonus for exceptional teachers sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Exxon Mobil foundations unless the bonuses are distributed equally among all teachers, good, bad, and average.”

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