Education for competence, creativity, autonomy, thriving

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Again, this entry is a reflection for “What Future for Education?” in response to the following prompts:

  • In an ideal world, how do you think education should be organised?

  • What priorities do you think it should reflect? and who should be responsible for ensuring that it is of a good quality?

  • Is there anything from the padlet wall that has informed your position?

While I recognize the need of nations, governments and societies to pay attention to the prerogatives of the modern nation-state and while I know that education is one of the important parameters for developing a proper, well-informed, functional citizenry, I also believe that it is now time to focus on other objectives in education. Indeed, for decades now we have needed to shift fundamental models of learning. Some elements certainly need to remain. I generally agree, for example, that a measure of civic education is necessary. All citizens and resident aliens ought to understand (and, in general, subscribe to) the fundamental values and modalities of a society. It is productive and contributes to the common good to assure that everyone has a minimal level of certain competencies: literacy, numeracy, a grasp of basic ideas, information and functional principles of modern science, an understanding of the nation’s history, and so forth. (One can argue about just which competencies and understandings are necessary.)

However, there are two fundamental objectives nation-states’ development of education in the 19th century and that have been maintained throughout the 20th, objectives that I believe need to be discarded outright. First, is the somewhat underhanded intention of making citizens docile and easy to control. This objective is part of a nineteenth-century paternalistic and colonialist worldview, that ought no longer have currency. It is inappropriate and morally wrong. Indeed, education ought to teach citizens to be discerning, to be critical, to be skeptical, to ask probing questions and to press governments and authorities to be responsible and to work for the greater good. Citizens ought to have a grounding in how to demand transparency and accountability. Citizens ought to be taught to detect, to critique and reject (I’m echoing Harry G. Frankfurt here) bullshit claims. With a greater resistance to bullshit, to extreme bias, to deliberately propagated falsehoods, a democratic society or a nation is less susceptible to manipulation by ideologies or demagogues or extremist populist movements. Secondly, education ought NEVER to have as its primary goal the mass production of obedient workers. Yes, compulsory education ought to prepare everyone to do useful work. But it ought not to be aimed almost exclusively at stimulating economic production by preparing young persons to be mere cogs in an economic machine.

In an ideal world, I think that primary and secondary education ought to be about helping each person thrive, initially by developing fundamental competencies, but also by uncovering or discerning one’s capabilities, one’s capacities and propensities. It ought to be, in part, about self-actualization. It ought to be about developing creativity and critical thinking. It ought to be about engaging in an enthusiastic investigation of the world, learning how to use a variety of tools to learn, to explore, to detect and address problems, to develop solutions, to make meaning for oneself, to master oneself, to develop to one’s fullest potential. And for that reason, I believe that secondary and post-secondary education probably ought to be largely self-directed. Not in the sense of simply doing whatever one wants, but in the sense that each student will have a significant hand in planning her or his own education, deciding on what research or which investigations to pursue, which skills to hone, which problems to address, which questions to pose. By the final phases of secondary education, teachers will no longer be “the teacher” standing in front of a classroom, talking. Rather, they will be mentors, guides and models. They will support students by advising and encouraging them, by helping them to frame and pursue their own learning projects, standing ready to aid students who need further assistance or additional guidance. And for that, we need to rethink teacher education, so that teachers themselves are more polyvalent, interdisciplinary, autonomous and well prepared to mentor and, most of all, so that they are able and willing to co-investigate and co-learn in collaboration with students.

I truly believe that a move in the direction of promoting self-actualization and self-directed learning will make education more effective, more durable, more meaningful, with greater impact and it will, over the long term, contribute more effectively to the general good of a society than either market-oriented and job-focused education or expedient forms of education that look more like indoctrination into neoliberal consumerism (or other political philosophy), or a other way of “zombifying” children and making them less critical, less engaged, more compliant and less intellectually independent. In an ideal world, all educational systems ought to start with fundamental competencies (literacy, math, civic understanding, and so forth), move through teaching good collaboration and communication skills and end with autonomy, critical engagement, self-actualization, creativity and student engagement in the world beyond the classroom. Digital technologies and other technical infrastructures make these possibilities feasible in the 21st century. So, please, let’s leave the 19th century behind. We can develop a model of education that retains some elements of the past, starting with competencies and skills that are useful for taking part in meaningful work and social life, but let’s not end there. Let’s develop educational frameworks, structures and processes that culminate in critical thinking, self-understanding, self-actualization, expansive views of the world and learner autonomy. Let’s educate for the 21st century now, rather than in a century or two.

Finally, I note that there is no single Padlet entry that had a particularly strong influence on my thinking, except maybe one entry that referred to a Washington Post article by Valerie Strauss, “Why Pragmatic Liberal Education Matters Now More than Ever.” What most contributed to the thinking in this entry is my own experience of learning, further shaped by Stephen Ball’s comments in MOOC videos, in a lecture on YouTube, and in his book, Global Education, Inc., along with a TED Talk by Pasi Sahlberg, “GERMs that kills schools.”

What Ambitious Literacy Instruction Is.

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At this point, I’m now engaged in another MOOC, through edX (the University of Michigan is the organizing and teaching institution in this case). The title of the course: “Leading Ambitious Teaching and Learning.” Here is the link for information about the course as a whole:

Here is my reflection in response to the prompt, which asks students to thinking about what “ambitious literacy instruction is.”

Ambitious implies high expectations of students. So it is not simply instruction that “settles” for achievements or effort that are “good enough,” but that shoots for something somewhat beyond that level. Ambitious literacy instruction pushes students or asks more of students than they are comfortable with. It seeks to exceed minimal standards in literacy, in reading and understanding and being able to respond to texts.

In short, in my view, it is instruction that — in the realm of literacy, of reading, understanding and responding to texts — asks students to stretch beyond minimal goals, that asks students to move somewhat beyond their comfort zone, to confront and to wrestle with texts that are difficult, challenging, and uncomfortable to process. It is literacy instruction that asks students to engage with the texts, that forces them to ask questions of the text, that expects them to do more than attain a superficial or facile understanding of the surface of the text. It is instruction that challenges them to go beyond the apparent meaning of the text, that seeks to understand — or that succeeds at nearly fully or fully comprehending — implications and consequences of the text’s ideas and arguments.

It is instruction that prepares students to read a particular text, but that also prepares them to delve into the depths of meaning, the implications of that text. It is instruction that engages with the main ideas of texts or that elicits many questions that one may ask of it. To be honest, it is “instruction,” that is teacher-generated frameworks or teacher-suggested questions that guide students to discern the principal ideas or the principal themes of the text in question, yet that leaves the bulk of the work of deciphering and interpretation and meaning-making to the students. In my view, excellent instruction is not just “ambitious,” but it is learner-centered, as well as ambitious.

In brief, that’s what I understand in the expression “Ambitious Literacy Instruction.”

Me, Today, as a Result of My Schooling

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Here is the prompt for the end-of-week-4 reflection exercise in the “What Future for Education?” MOOC on Coursera:

Create an entry in your reflective blog or journal.

  • How has your experience of school shaped you as a learner, and as an adult?

  • In what ways do you think your own schooling could have been improved, and what priorities do you think are the most important for schools today?

  • Your entry should be a minimum of 200 words.

Starting with the last bullet point, I would say that it is highly likely for me to meet the minimum of 200 words, since the first eleven posts in this blog averaged slightly over 1000 words each. That’s because I’m a bit verbose, I know, but also because I have a lot to say. So now, in all seriousness, I’ll turn to the first two bullet points above.

My experience as a learner is not some uniform, consistent or monolithic phenomenon. There is not a single broad “experience,” but a panoply of experiences of schooling and learning, ranging from formal to informal, from closed-ended to radically open-ended, from disagreeable and counterproductive to wildly positive, fertile and creative, from rigidly imposed to fully autonomous and self-directed. If I had to generalize, what I would say is that in schools, particularly before the age of 13 or 14, I generally refused to conform to rigid learning schemes. But by high school, I had realized that it was going to be necessary to compromise with the inflexible, obligatory educational systems and to “play by the rules” so that I would be able to succeed academically, no matter how uninterested I was in the system itself or in much of the content that it foisted on me. In the end, after some starts and stops, I finished my undergraduate education and received an undergraduate degree in English, which interested me greatly, and Communications, a field that interested me only slightly (although it was “practical” and allowed me to get a job immediately after finishing my university studies). To make a long story short, I completed my undergraduate diploma approximately two years later than my peers, in part because I suspended my postsecondary education a few times to work full-time while reflecting on what I truly wanted to do. Ultimately, somewhat late, I completed my studies, received my diploma, got a job and worked for about one year in two different jobs that I did not particularly like and in which I could hardly imagine a productive and happy future life. After considerable thought, I abandoned my very short career in radio and changed directions completely, applying to graduate school in a completely different field, French, which I had only begun to study as a beginner about three years earlier. But… it was what I wanted to study. It was meaningful to me. Fast forward by a few decades to find me working as a tenured Assistant Professor in that field. Today, I pursue interdisciplinary research and teach both discipline-specific and interdisciplinary classes.

My general experience of school was rife with difficulty and my academic performance was problematic at best. It’s not that I had cognitive problems. It’s that I did not want to do what teachers required of me in many cases. Sometimes I did the obligatory work and earned good grades. Sometimes I simply refused to do what was asked of me. I neglected to do homework, performed poorly on some tests, etc. The underlying reason for my erratic performance was lack of interest and lack of motivation. In those years when I had a teacher or two who appealed to me or excited my curiosity or inspired me, I enjoyed learning. When I found most of my teachers “boring” (as I thought of it then) or when they condescended or lacked enthusiasm for their teaching, I disengaged and received poor grades as a result.

That formal experience diverged significant from another category of life experiences. In part, because both of my parents were medical doctors and valued learning and because they provide a large variety of learning tools and experiences at home, I had an exciting, vibrant and highly productive life as a self-directed learner. My family possessed had a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica at home and other reference works, and I used them regularly to learn on my own. I read a great deal and used a dictionary constantly. I wrote poetry and fiction and used the encyclopedia to add detail and texture to my stories. I took part in a rocketry club and learned telemetry. I consumed documentaries (being secretly in love with Jane Goodall) and watched Sesame Street and Electric Company. I developed the habit of reading newsmagazines, particularly Time and U.S. New & World Report, around the age of 10 or 11 and I sometimes asked my parents to explain current events, like the Vietnam war, Nixonian politics or the Apollo missions. I had a lot of tools for autonomous learning, like anatomical models of the human body, self-quizzing tools in a range of disciplines, and math puzzles. I had chemistry sets, electronics kits, science magazines. In short, as a kid, I had a lot of rich and satisfying learning experiences outside of school.

The contrast between unsatisfying school life and heady, joyful self-directed study on my own or with my siblings and friends at home formed my tastes and preferences in learning. To this day, I like to learn on my own. My graduate work included a lot of autonomous, self-directed learning, as does my work as a tenure-track faculty member. Indeed, even now, I love to do research and “library detective work.” I take MOOCs and read a great deal. I prefer autonomous learning to highly structured learning activities, especially those where I am asked to do activities in lockstep with others. I do enjoy collaboration, although a teacher- or leader-directed activity that leaves me little discretion or freedom to manage my own learning turns me off. I am certain that it is because of this background and this experience that I am a “distributed individual” learner who enjoys takings MOOCs like “Leaders of Learning” or “What Future for Education?” Connected learning, which can combine autonomous and self-directed learning with digitally-mediated collaboration, generally engages me and captures my interest, particularly if the learning project piques my curiosity or resonates in meaningful ways with questions that I believe are good to ask. Even in my own teaching, I tend to make my lessons learner-centered and collaborative. I allow learners to share in the selection of readings or development of activities. I have learners develop discussion questions or co-manage online discussion forums in collaboration with me. I try to make my learners active. I try to foster autonomy and self-responsibility. I show my enthusiasm and passion. I try to model the best of what I’ve picked up from self-directed learning, but also the best parts of my school experience with engaging, inspiring teachers.

How could schooling be improved for learners like me?  Allow and empower greater autonomy; support self-directed learning. Get rid of drab, rigid, square classrooms. Offer bright, airy, cheerful spaces with flexible and mobile furniture. Enable collaboration. Make learners responsible for their learning, but don’t impose impose structures or timetables for every step. Set high expectations, but then empower learners to learn at their own pace to meet those expectations.

In short, based on my experience, I would like to introduce an informal character into formal education. I developed into a serious intellectual and a committed lifelong learner largely in opposition to formal educational systems and processes, rather than in harmony with them or supported by them. Given that background, it is understandable, I think, that I would like for education to allow greater learner autonomy. The educational system(s) ought to teach teachers to motivate, guide, mentor and accompany learners, instead of directing or commanding them. Institutions and schools ought to figure ways to provide digital tools and resources, then let the learners pursue their interests in a way that meets learning goals, as part of the curriculum if not as its whole substance. Generally speaking, those kinds of innovations would be the major elements in my plan to improve education. I think that it’s important to focus on learner autonomy and self-responsibility, with high expectations, but flexible pathways for meeting learning goals.

That’s it in a nutshell.

Have I Experienced Good Schools? Yes and No.

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In the fourth week of the “What Future for Education?” MOOC, participants are invited to reflect on “good” schools that they have encountered and to reflect on what about them was valuable. Here is the exact prompt:

Reflect on:

  • your own schooling, did you go to a “good” school? What “residuals” did you take away from your schooling, and how has it helped you subsequently.

  • Finish the sentence: “A good school …” and post your idea to the AnswerGarden here.

I can honestly say that I have seen examples of what seems to me to be good schools, but I cannot endorse any of the schools that I actually attended or declare one or more of them as “extremely good.” Most of them seem to have had competent staffing, sufficient resourcing, facilities that were in line with expectations of their times and a generally appropriate process for managing the number and diversity of children in their charge. However, to say that they were “very good,” at least in my experience of them, would be an overstatement. There are some aspects of schooling that did appeal to the learner in me.  I remember, for example a public school in Evanston, Illinois, on Main Street, where I first experienced rocketry, which sparked my interest in math, science and technology. At the same school, I remember enjoying mathematics lessons. At the same time, I did not feel safe at the school, since I was bullied and mocked by some of my peers. So, all things considered, it was not a very good learning environment for me. At Andalusia High School, in Covington County, Alabama, I had learned how to fend for myself, which made it a bit easier, and I even took on some bullies who mistreated other kids. I earned respect and had a stable and enjoyable circle of friends. I learned a useful skill (typing, which came in handy since personal computers were emerging around this time). I further developed my taste for science, particularly biology and chemistry, along with creative writing and, in my final year, I was “turned on” to American history. All in all, it was a decent learning experience, even though the school was not particularly well endowed and some of my teachers were relatively poor performers. I would say that it was more the teachers than the school that gave me the most positive learning experiences. And I’d say that in most cases it was because they set the bar high, then helped me figure how to meet those expectations. One other school, Roycemore, a private, independent K-12 school in Evanston, was quite good. It was small and it had fairly talented teachers, including one of my favorites of all, a science teacher who had a great sense of humor and continually told jokes, even during his lessons. (He did not remain in teaching very long and, ultimately, he had a long career as a writer and standup comic.) Still, he really stoked my enthusiasm for the life sciences and it was at Roycemore that I began doing serious reading and research in what was called “ecology” at the time. It was also at Roycemore that I had an English teacher who recognized that I needed a different kind of teaching or instructional supervision. She allowed me to pursue independent learning/reading/writing projects, where I am certain that I accomplished more than I would have if she had forced me to “get with the program.” I believe that Roycemore, more than the other schools I attended, allowed teachers to exercise discretion in the way that they worked with learners to attain “growth” learning goals, rather than sticking to a rigid curriculum where all students march in lock-step. For that reason, it may have been the best school for me.

About two years ago, when I took a MOOC on titled “Leaders of Learning,” I saw many examples of schools and learning environments that I wish had been part of my experience and that, I’m pretty sure would have been very good schools for me. Nearly all of the schools that I actually went to were characterized by rigid, squared-off learning spaces, with desks neatly aligned. They were not particularly comfortable or welcoming environments. Collaboration and informal exchange during class were not particularly encouraged. Nearly all lessons were teacher-centered and ignored learning differences. In other words, pretty much everything about my formal schooling (except maybe typing classes, art classes, chorus) tended to be boring, one-size-fits-all and disheartening. In only a few cases did certain teachers help me forget the oppression of the “classroom,”  (both the dreary, constrained physical space and the “classroom” modality of a desks aligned to face the teacher, who was the center of attention). In science classes, we often had “hands on” and collaborative activities in the “lab.”

I think that a lot of schools do things differently today (vibrant colors, open spaces, mobile and adaptable furniture, opportunities to work collaboratively), but when I was in school, it was mostly a grind and a bore — both the process and the environment. So to say that any of my schools was truly outstanding would be dishonest. At best, I’d say that Roycemore was good and Andalusia High School was slightly better than mediocre.

Teachers Who Inspired Me

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If you have been reading this blog, you know by now that I distinguish between “education” and “learning,” valuing the latter more than the former. It’s not that I dismiss the necessity of education for the good of society. Rather, it is because I have been disappointed in the systems and curricula that made up the greatest part of my own “education.” In many ways, except for my work in graduate school, a significant portion of which was self-directed (an M. A. thesis that became a book, a doctoral dissertation that I’m mining for articles), my self-directed learning has been more productive and helpful than the learning I did within the educational systems that I progressed through. If you have read a number of blog posts, you will also know that I focus more on teaching than on teachers and I truly focus on teaching as a complex process of fostering learning, not on teaching as the “transfer of knowledge” from teacher to student. In other words, I focus on learning, more than on teachers and teaching.

Still, during my long years of formal education, I encountered a few teachers who had a particularly significant impact on me and I would like to talk about them collectively. I am not talking about larger-than-life or miracle-working teachers. I generally do not believe in the sustainable reality of “magically effective” or “superhero” teachers, no matter how inspiring they might be in movies. (I’m thinking of Louanne Johnson, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, in Dangerous Minds or John Keating, played by Robin Williams, in Dead Poets Society, Glenn Holland, played by Richard Dreyfuss, in Mr. Holland’s Opus, François Marin, played by François Bégaudeau, in Entre les murs, Arthur Chipping, played by Peter O’Toole, in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Clément Mathieu, played by Gérard Jugnot, in Les Choristes, Jaime Escalante, played by Edward James Olmos, in Stand and Deliver, and so forth.) There do exist fabulously great teachers who can change lives, yes, but most of those who have a real impact on real learners tend to be modest, down-to-earth, human beings struggling to do a good job, not epically charismatic, bigger-than-life, almost supernatural figures. Please note that that’s not to say that extraordinary teachers do not exist. It’s just that I don’t think that the “superhero teacher” a workable model for most folks who decide to teach.

The folks I am talking were extraordinary in some very humble and ordinary ways. They were conscientious and attentive. They were attuned to the body language and the needs of their students. They had genuine enthusiasm for their subject matter. They used humor, empathy and compassion to reach their students. And they focused as much on actual student learning as they did on complying with the prescribed curriculum. In short, they were teachers, yes, but they were also mentors, guides and, in an almost etymological sense, pedagogues. The accompanied learners and taught them more than just facts or specific skills. They helped them to develop as learners. Their attentions where not just on the books, the activities and the syllabi, but also on the learners themselves. They sought to foster learning by helping the students understand how to forge meaningful and lasting connections to bodies of knowledge, how to make their own meaning, discern complexities, uncover patterns, accomplish deeds. And in my case, that meant giving me the freedom to learn my way, instead of forcing me to kowtow to the curriculum.

A small handful ofe teachers, encountered in schools, colleges and universities between the ages of 11 and 20, truly “turned me on” to learning in a number of different areas (science, particularly ecology and entomology, literature, creative writing, history, philosophy, geology, media studies, communications, law). In most cases, it was because the were willing to depart from the “production line” model of moving learners through the system and, instead, engaged me on a human level, helped me understand why some subjects are worth studying, mentored me on ways to succeed within a relatively inflexible educational system and helped me pursue my own interests while doing so. For me, the great teachers who made me want to be a teacher myself were folks who modeled several fundamental human traits. Curiosity. Engagement. Seeing the big picture. A propensity for explaining well and, more importantly, giving good examples. Interest in connecting disparate ideas and data. Empathy with others. Compassion. Flexibility. Enthusiasm. Personal charm. And a willingness to guide and support learners, rather than dictate to them.

Even though I sometimes fall back to the “assembly line” model of teaching, I mostly try to emulate these good folks who helped me so much and inspired me to learn.

What is a “Good Teacher”?

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The question in my title truly masks a pair of inquiries. I will try to address both of them in this post. First, and most importantly, it focuses on the nature of teaching as an act, and on a range of specific elements that comprise the normal or typical praxis, outlook and character of someone who claims to be a “teacher.” Secondly, and just as richly, it ponders the nature of the elements that define the highest level of effectiveness and quality in the elements of practice, outlook and character constituting and animating the dynamic ensemble that we would recognize as a “good teacher.”

I say that the first question is more important, although it might have been more fitting to say that it is more intriguing, more complex and, perhaps, more problematic. What I mean to suggest is that “teaching” is not necessarily “something” that one “does.” Or to put it another way, teaching is, or can be, or ought to be  about “fostering learning,” more than it is an act in and of itself. The colloquial way of talking about the paradigm shift that I am referencing is to say that a teacher is no longer a “sage on the stage,” but is now a “guide on the side.” Those who want to inculcate and sustain the best and most effective kinds of learning probably need to stop thinking of themselves as folks who do this thing called “teaching,” and focus instead on being subject matter experts and “resource persons,” who are also mentors, advanced organizers of learning activities and exemplars who inspire and support learners. Teaching truly is not just one thing, but a whole panoply of practices and roles and manners and modes of attention and focus. It is about understanding learners and understanding and promoting learning. It is about effective monitoring of learning practices and careful attention to each and every learner. It is about organizing learning activities and assuring that students have the motivation, knowledge, strategies and resources that they need to complete the learning work. It is about supporting learners and facilitating good, resonant and durable learning. It is about fostering metacognition and resilience and curiosity.

Teaching that arcs toward what I am calling, with hope in my heart and mind, the “future of learning” is a complex and difficult enterprise. It is not to be undertaken by the faint of heart or by the uninspired or the lazy. It is hard work. Being a teacher in its best incarnation means fulfilling a multitude of roles simultaneously, with wit, and grace, and care.

And that leads us to the second question. What is “good teaching”? It is about focusing on learning and assuring that students know how to learn, assuring that they are prepared to do the activities that they need to accomplish for good learning to take place. It means assuring that they adopt and use learning practices that maximize learning for all involved in the activities. A good teacher inspires learners and helps them develop strategies and mindsets that support their learning, or that helps the learner improve his or her ability to learn effectively alone or collectively and knows how to apply new knowledge and skills impactfully. A good teacher has a sense of the attitudes and levels of engagement, and intellectual strengths or weaknesses,  of each of the learners that she or he is working with. In other words, in my view, for an effective future of learning, it will be necessary to redefine teaching in a universal way to embrace this dynamic, complex, difficult set of interwoven competencies, propensities and potentialities. That kind of “teaching for learning” can be extremely difficult — because the challenge of it is continually renewed, moment to moment —  and it requires interweaving many roles, juggling many priorities and managing many sets of information, with an eye turned toward the target of effective and durable learning for every single learner in one’s class, course, room or purview.

In subsequent blog posts, I expect to unpack at least the most salient of the multitude of skills and roles that teaching for optimal learning seems to demand.(To understand and master teaching skills for fostering learning, it is necessary to understand how human brains work, how lasting memories are formed and how to motivate and guide learners. Those are a few aspects of learning (and teaching) that we will focus on in future posts, along with investigations of kinds of learning, and appropriate modalities for administering and managing the complex processes of education. Unpacking these ideas will require talking about cognitive science and models of learning. It will touch on assessment. It will touch on questions about what education is for. So… it’s a vast and complex agenda that I had packed into a single — or was that a double? — question.

“Academia, Love Me Back” by TM

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Here, I am doing something a bit different. I am re-blogging an entry by Tiffany Martínez in her online journal. It is about a learning experience that was impactful in a negative way, but that also offers us, all of us, an opportunity to learn. There are multiple layers of potential learning here, thanks to Tiffany’s blogging about her experience. I encourage you to read “Tiffany Martínez: a journal,” particularly the entry linked below. Here are my own initial thoughts.

As I think about my own education (where I had immense benefit as a valued and supported and loved member of an economically and socially privileged family) and as I think about ways to foster and sustain teaching that encourages learners and helps them uncover and affirm their own cognitive strengths, their passions, their own version of critical engagement with the world at large and with the work of the academic enterprise, teaching that offers learners tools and strategies and resources, that helps them develop character and courage for wrestling with challenging new ideas, for making sense of intimidating quantities and patterns of information, for socializing into new intellectual practices… my hope is that teachers will NEVER proceed as Tiffany Martínez’s professor did with her. Jumping to conclusions and shaming, particularly in ways that further marginalize and undercut folks whose backgrounds and circumstances may not offer them needed support or encouragement, folks who face disproportionate obstacles in the academic world, is abhorrent. It’s just plain wrong. Dispassionately and properly reporting suspicion of plagiarism is one thing. Public shaming is quite another. Especially for “hence.” Hence! Really?

I would like to think that I would never treat a learner in my own class in this manner. However, it would be more honest for me to recognize that, as a teacher, I, too, have jumped to erroneous conclusions. I’ve always tried to discern and address my own misapprehensions and unfair behaviors, but I know that I have also failed on occasion to repair or address some of my hurtful and unjust acts. In spite of my self-professed flaws, there is one truth that and can affirm absolutely:  It is always counterproductive and unjustified to humiliate or ridicule a learner. In. All. Circumstances. Always.

One or two more things. I’m so sorry that this incident happened to you, Tiffany. I hope that you will please take strength in the following. I find your courage in talking about this incident — with equanimity and grace (in spite of your hurt) — an admirable and inspiring act. Thank you for offering us an opportunity to reflect and learn. Thank you for this demonstration of character and courage.

“Academia needs work.” Indeed.

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My name is Tiffany Martínez. As a McNair Fellow and student scholar, I’ve presented at national conferences in San Francisco, San Diego, and Miami. I have crafted a critical reflection piece that was published in a peer-reviewed journal managed by the Pell Institute for the Study of Higher Education and Council for Opportunity in Education. I have consistently juggled at least two jobs and maintained the status of a full-time student and Dean’s list recipient since my first year at Suffolk University. I have used this past summer to supervise a teen girls empower program and craft a thirty page intensive research project funded by the federal government. As a first generation college student, first generation U.S. citizen, and aspiring professor I have confronted a number of obstacles in order to earn every accomplishment and award I have accumulated. In the face of struggle, I have persevered and continuously produced…

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My “Intelligence,” My Education, My Learning

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Here is my final reflection for week 2 in the “What future for education?” MOOC. First, the prompt:

Here are some questions to guide your thinking:

  • During your own education, how has your “intelligence” been assessed?

  • How has this affected the educational opportunities you have been given?

  • What judgments have people made about you that have been affected by an assessment of your “intelligence”?

  • Do you consider yourself to be a “learner”? why?

School and private psychologists assessed my IQ  multiple times during my childhood. They also submitted me to aptitude tests and a battery of other kinds of instruments to measure different abilities, personality traits and attitudes. The reason for all of this attention and testing? First, I was a troubled, insecure child. I was extremely reserved. Indeed, I was almost pathologically shy. My parents were worried about me and sought professional help. Secondly, I performed very poorly in school. So school psychologists or learning specialists would test me every so often to find out what the “problem” was. They learned that I had no cognitive or sensory disabilities and that my intelligence was — as measured by their assessments — above average.

The problem, it seems, is that I was unmotivated. I did not see the purpose of doing many of the activities, homework and readings that teachers assigned in class. Indeed, I thought that school was largely futile and exceedingly boring. From time to time, I encountered a teacher who excited my passion (for biology, for reading and literature, for ecology, for art, for languages). But very often, I either found my classes unchallenging in the extreme or I thought them irrelevant. In the case of the former, I worked very little because it was too easy. In the case of the later, I did very little because I did not see the point. In retrospect, I know that I frustrated my teachers and my parents enormously.

While I was a very problematic and under-performing pupil (because I was inattentive, distracted, and failed to complete homework assignments and other work in a timely manner), I was a very good informal learner and, in fact, I learned a lot. For example, I had memorized and could easily identity all of the bones and major organs in human anatomy and I understood many principles of physiology by the time I was 10. I was reading at a college level at 12 years of age. By that same age, I had learned the names of most world capitals and was reading about cultural practices in other nations. I sampled American Indian lore. I pursued projects in rocketry. I was wrote several science fiction tales that I illustrated myself. I studied wetland ecosystems and entomology. Once, when I was 12, I was “academically disciplined” for reading Michael Crichton’s novel, The Andromeda Strain in the back of my English class instead of participating in an exercise that I considered “boring”: analyzing and diagramming silly and artificial-sounding sentences from our textbook.  At 13, I had finished The Hobbit and was reading The Lord of the Rings instead of doing my geometry homework. I was regularly perusing newsmagazines to learn about current events and following the Watergate proceedings on television instead of doing my “summer homework.” I built crystal radios. I raised seahorses. I observed ants and other insects and took notes on their behavior. In short, I read a lot and did a lot. I explored many divergent conceptual areas, both on my own or with others. I exercised my curiosity in a multitude of ways. By doing all of those things, I developed my intellectual frameworks and knowledge significantly. Truly, I learned an immense amout. However, in school, my performance was inconsistent and teachers generally considered me a very “poor” learner.

Back to testing. My personality and my intelligence were probed and analyzed repeatedly, yet the results of those tests did little to help educators figure out how to help me. I was fortunate because I did encounter a few teachers who knew how to harness my curiosity, my divergent interests, my passion for exploring the world. My English teacher, for example, ultimately allowed me to write a lengthy book report on Michael Crichton’s novel instead of forcing me to diagram sentences. My geometry teacher allowed me to develop my own “real-world” problems to solve, rather than forcing me to do the problems in the textbook. My science teacher allowed me to research and write an extensive report on the consequences of shrinking wetlands in a region near my school, rather than dissecting a frog.

In the long run, I learned how to adapt to the “game” of education and I began focusing my cognitive abilities on the tasks that teachers required me to do, even when those tasks and activities made little sense to me. I believed that a significant part of my formal education was silly and wasteful, but I bent to the rules. I did activities and exercises were ineffective for helping me to learn. I memorized and parroted a lot of information that I considered to have little value. As a consequence, I still have mostly negative feelings about my primary school and secondary school learning and about a large part of my undergraduate education as well. It was only in the last years of university and in my graduate programs that I felt challenged, invigorated, engaged. Beyond that, the other major areas where I feel truly invigorated and highly motivated as a learner lie in various kinds of informal activities that I have sampled outside of educational institutions, including, for example, community-based informal workshops, self-organizing reading groups, open-source educational tools (including Wikipedia, podcasts, educational programming on public broadcasting) and in MOOCS.

So, in my case, I would say that “intelligence” and IQ testing had little effect, whether positive or negative, on my learning in school. My parents’ and my teachers’ focus on my “intelligence” and my “ability” was a distraction. What mattered most for my learning was engagement, a sense of control, a sense of relevance, developing a focus for my curiosity, having a passion for the learning content. Unfortunately, unlike one accomplished intellectual whom I admire, Neil deGrasse Tyson, I did not manage my time and attention well, or find an academically productive focus for my passion for learning when I was young. Unlike Tyson, I did not concentrate on any particular subject or cultivate any particular ambition during my formal primary and secondary education. I failed to develop resilience, grit or disciplined focus. I did not have a goal.

In retrospect, I wish that I had found my calling earlier in my life, rather than later. Through all of these experiences, I note that my “intelligence,” such as it is, had relatively little to do with my academic performance, broadly speaking. While it is true that my cognitive capacities helped me learn in those moments when I applied myself, my “intelligence” did very little to motivate me in school. My conclusion? I would say that, all things considered, generalized “intelligence,” “ability,” and “talent” are vastly overrated in learning and in formal education. There are many other factors that are far more important, like focus, persistence, resilience, discipline, passion, grit, relevance and, of course, “deliberate practice.” After embracing this point of view, I became a far more effective learner (and teacher).

Intelligence is…

[797 words]

Week 2 of the “What future for education?” MOOC focuses on intelligence, a tricky and controversial topic. Here is the initial reflection prompt:

Reflect on:

  • What you already know about intelligence. How do you know if someone is intelligent or not?

  • Do you consider yourself to be intelligent? Why? What is your evidence for this?

  • Finish this sentence: Intelligence is … and post your idea on AnswerGarden here

I will start with the third bit, then move to the first and second bullet points. On “AnswerGarden” (an online app that creates a kind of word cloud) I gave three answers:

  • Intelligence is  complex
  • Intelligence is a complex set of skills and potential
  • Intelligence is like a garden

The first point is my own honest answer. The other two I entered mostly to “upvote” the two responses that I believed made the most sense. The largest term in the cloud (with 40 votes) was “making effective use of knowledge and skills.” For me, that has little to do with intelligence. That phrase is about competence or about self-management. But it’s not “intelligence” per se, unless you mean some kind of pragmatic, self-management-oriented version of intelligence, not generalized intelligence.

Let me explain my reasons for the responses I entered:

“Like a garden” = can be cultivated, can change with careful planning and systematic work, is productive, depends on circumstances (like climate, resources, sunshine, favorable conditions, etc.)

“a complex set of skills and potential” = intelligence is about intellectual capacity, the ability to interpret, make connections, discern, generate ideas, etc. So, yes, in a sense, it undergirds and informs skills. And it is about potential. (Again, intelligence can change over time and can rise to meet a challenge in some cases, so it’s a kind of potential and a kind of resource that informs skills.)

“Complex” = that is, it is not just one thing. It derives from a multitude of interconnecting cognitive processes and capacities. It fluctuates. Its functioning is not easily predictable.

About the third bullet point, I would say that, yes, I am intelligent. I say this for two reasons. First, I tested for an above-average Intelligence Quotient when I was young. That is, I have a good brain with good basic cognitive capabilities. But that’s not sufficient. Secondly, I would say that I also am able to use my cognitive abilities in a wide variety of circumstances. I am perceptive and discerning and I seize most information rapidly and easily. I process large quantities of data and complex thoughts without a problem. I am articulate, I read widely and exercise my brain regularly. I adapt to different circumstances and perform a wide variety of intellectual tasks well. I am reasonably creative. And, finally, many folks consider me to be intelligent. For all of those reasons, I would venture to say that, yes, I am intelligent. It’s all about my being able to exercise a wide range of highly adaptable cognitive skills and to process information rapidly and accurately. All of those things are measures of different forms of intelligence.

To that, I would add that I have a good level of so-called “emotional intelligence” or “social intelligence.” I read people reasonably well. I understand the feelings of others and am usually adept at interpreting their facial expressions and postures accurately to know the mood that they are in. I’m attuned to others.

Now, finally, how do I know if someone is intelligent or not? In general, the kind of intelligence that I am looking for is intellectual: speaking well, having a good range of vocabulary, possessing good basic knowledge, being perceptive and discerning, reasoning well, being able to engage in effective and productive dialogue, and so forth. I also tend to look for both creativity and social intelligence as indicators of a generalized intellectual intelligence, although I am acquainted with smart people who are social morons and socially adept, highly creative folks who are not very smart intellectually.

In the end, intelligence is about cognitive power, about a high cognitive potential for thinking, speaking, processing information and reasoning, about perception and about articulation of thoughts. But those are simply my definition of intelligence, not signs of intelligence per se. Like beauty, intelligence is in the interpretive scheme of the beholder, not inherent in brains themselves. What we call “intelligence” is an artificial construct that we simply use unthinkingly and without critical examination. In truth, though, intelligence derives from a complex amalgam of various cognitive abilities and potentials that we generally value and derive benefit from in our social and professional lives. Intelligence is not just one thing. There are myriad forms of intelligence and a multitude of nuanced manifestations of its capacities. So… the answer to the question about how I know whether or not someone is intelligent is… “It depends.”

What Future for Education? Reading List from Week 1


[348 words]

Here, I’m simply reproducing a list of potential readings from the “What future for education?” MOOC. I may comment on one or more of these titles later. For now, though, I’m just reproducing information gathered by Clare Brooks.

Here are the details of the texts mentioned by Eleanore in her interview:

  • Apple, M. (2014) Official knowledge. New York: Routledge.

  • Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming critical. Oxford: Deakin University Press.

  • Dewey, J. (2010 [1902; 1915]) The school and society. Mineola: Dover Publications.

  • Fielding, M. and Moss, P. (2011) Radical education and the common school. Oxford: Routledge.

  • Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the oppressed. London: Penguin.

  • Scott, D. and Hargreaves, E. (2015) The Sage handbook of learning. London: Sage.

  • Vygotsky, L. (1986) Thought and language (A. Kozulin Ed.), USA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

  • Watkins, C. (2003) Classrooms as learning communities. Oxford: Routledge.

To this list, I will add a blog entry titled “Learning theory: models, product and process” that I believe is worth sampling, and that was referenced in the MOOC.

The blog site is labeled “infed,” which is an abbreviated version of “informal education.” I note that Mark K. Smith, the author, distinguishes between formal learning and informal learning (or, as I put it earlier, between learning and education) and he seems to value autonomous, self-motivated learning. At any rate, he quotes American psychologist Carl Rogers, who clearly distinguished between the rigid, formal system and “lifeless, sterile, futile, quickly forgotten stuff” that derives from education and the self-motivated, learner-controlled kinds of explorations, investigations and experiences that comprise autonomous learning (Rogers 1983: 18-19). In short, I am not alone in distinguishing between formal learning in educational institutions and other, more autonomous, distributed, learner-centered forms of learning. Nor am I alone in valorizing the latter over the former. At any rate, this site provides a good overview of a variety of learning theories. And the Rogers book provides an overview of learning from a humanist psychologist’s perspective.

Works cited

Rogers, A. (2003) What is the Difference? A new critique of adult learning and teaching, Leicester: NIACE. 85 pages.

Smith, M. K. (2003). ‘Learning theory’, the encyclopedia of informal education. [ Retrieved: 5 January 2017.