The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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The Role of the Science Classroom in an Enlightened Democracy

This post is an old version. My philosophy of education has been revised.

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Below is an excerpt from my final analytical paper for the class Language, Power, and Democracy. The prompt asked us to examine our social location and to formulate a philosophy of education based on it. I am including only the latter section below (as the former section is a bit personal).

While this was what I ended up submitting this morning, I recognize that this process is just beginning. This is the first cut of my philosophy of education, what I believe as I am preparing to enter the profession. I have no doubt that these ideas will change and grow over time.

Those of you who read my blog regularly may recognize passages taken wholesale from previous posts (Why Learn Physics? and Scientific Literacy as Social Justice in particular).

Comments and discussion welcome.

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My philosophy of education is informed by my social location and beliefs towards the goal of establishing a democratic classroom through scientific literacy. This goal is difficult to address without first defining what I mean by democracy, and along with it, my sense of democracy’s role and legitimacy in human life. In the interest of focusing on the primary question of a philosophy of education I will defer to John Dewey, who simultaneously sums up my conception of democracy and places education in the context of democracy in the same passage of Democracy and Education:

“If democracy has a moral and ideal meaning, it is that a social return be demanded from all and that opportunity for development of distinctive capacities be afforded all. The separation of these aims in education is fatal to democracy” (Dewey 2004, p 117).

Contained within Dewey’s assertion is that true democracy is not self-sustaining, nor is it separable from the moral and ideological character of its citizens. To the contrary, he implies that a stable democracy is explicitly contingent upon the existence of equitable development of individual capacity and the parallel development of social consciousness in all citizens.  If rule is to be of, by, and for the people, then fulfilling the promise of a free, just, and enlightened state depends on the existence of an independent, critical, and socially conscious electorate made up equitably of all peoples within the state’s domain. And in expressly laying the expectation of social return upon the citizens of a democracy, it is necessary that the opportunity to develop the distinctive capacities of each individual be made equitably accessible to all; otherwise, there is no justice in expecting these capacities to exist in all citizens, nor does it follow that they could be then exhorted to service on behalf of one’s community and fellow human beings.

I further interpret Dewey’s statement to reinforce a logically-subsequent assertion: that it is explicitly the function and proper aim of the public education system within a democracy to cultivate these two qualities in its future citizens. Accepting this premise, the goal of education then becomes twofold: firstly, to develop the distinctive capabilities of every individual who is expected to participate in the democracy, and secondly, to instill a sense of social awareness and community action that will motivate the application of these distinctive capacities towards the betterment of our shared human condition in the world.

I will consider the aim of developing individual distinctive capacity first, as well as its implications for the role of the education system and the educator.  A student who graduates from the public education system in the possession of developed capacities may be said to have acquired agency – the means and self-knowledge necessary to interpret the world on one’s own terms and to act upon it with intention. However, it stands to reason that the groups, factions, races, etc of people who are in power would, consciously or not, see it to their advantage to deny acquisition of agency to those who are perceived to threaten the existing social order. This reason alone is sufficient to subject the public education system, and any public educator acting towards this fundamental aim of education, to the epithets reserved for subversives by the dominant elite.

As Giroux (2008) so poignantly reminds us, “education is always political because it is concerned with the acquisition of agency” (transcript p 1). It should be no surprise that the education system finds itself in a paradoxical position, both politically and existentially. On the one hand, public education must be provided by the state in order to be truly public — that is, accessible by all. Yet, by virtue of the fact that it is a public institution, it is also by definition an arm of the state, which is disproportionately influenced by those with a vested interest in maintaining their dominant position in the hierarchy of society. Truly public education in the context of a democracy cannot (and should not) evade this conflict; the political element is unavoidable for any self-aware public educator acting in good conscience. Education, in spite of – and because of – its immense capacity for liberation and empowerment of all people towards the ideal of our common humanity, is subject to the pervasive influence of the political machinations of those in power at every level.

Within the education system, face to face with the individual student, is the public educator who finds him or herself in the position of being the human interface between the institution and the hierarchies that it represents on one side, and the moral imperative for cultivation and liberation of the student on the other.  De los Reyes and Gozemba (2002) provide the blueprint for how educators may use this unique position in the matrices of power to pave the way toward democratic liberation for all students:

“Teachers with a passion for democracy play the central role in pockets of hope. Their commitment to sharing power and engaging themselves and their students in the ‘practice of freedom’ transforms their educational projects from the all too common power-over paradigm to a power-with experience” (p 19).

The educator is the linchpin, the key link, the daily human contact that mediates ideas about the extent, limits, and legitimacy of power between the greater society and the students’ own growing understanding of themselves and the world. The secret to doing so well, according to De los Reyes and Gozemba (and with whom I agree), is for teachers to deliberately share the power of their unique position with their students in the service of developing their distinctive individual capacities as human beings.

Towards what end is this liberating power shared and applied? This question requires an exploration of the importance of expecting a social return from all in a stable democracy. A fair expectation of reasoned and moral civic engagement by all citizens is certainly predicated upon equity of access to the development of individual agency. But without explicit cultivation of the sense of moral purpose and duty to the common weal, democracy devolves into a mere collection of individual bubbles of social-libertarian, consumerist nihilism — in which short-term interests and instant personal gratification rule and any issue which does not directly affect an individual may be dismissed in a socially legitimized way. Such a condition leads to the worst possible manifestation of democracy, a state which Benjamin Franklin wryly described as “two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” But, not to leave our general system of government without redemption, he went on to add: “Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote.” I think that this distinction is important, especially in an age for which democracy and liberty often seem to be used synonymously. Democracy does not explicitly require liberty – but it is a hollow democracy indeed without liberty.

Here I am forced to make a rather abstract chain of connections in order to maintain the logical integrity of my primary argument. I will attempt to connect the necessity of liberty in a democracy to the necessity of a proper scientific education in the individual, a task for which I am at a loss as to how it may be accomplished without resort to metaphysics. I assert, without detailed explication, that I believe Immanuel Kant’s Third Conflict of Transcendental Ideas solidly establishes that freedom of mind is the only form in which the idea of liberty meets the minimum criteria of ontological self-consistency (Kant 2007). Thus, in order to continue in the vein of pursuing that which ensures liberty as the tempering ingredient of democracy, I must accept that the kind of freedom which would best serve the aims that I have accepted for education and democratic classrooms is freedom of mind. Bloom (1987) points the way to what this means existentially:

“Freedom of mind requires not only, not even especially, the absence of legal constraints but the presence of alternative thoughts. The most successful tyranny is not the one that uses force to assure uniformity but the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities, that makes it seem inconceivable that other ways are viable, that removes the sense that there is an outside” (p 249).

And how to promote the proliferation of alternate possibilities for explaining what is outside of us? As the final step in this metaphysical bridge, I posit that the primary means by which we as humans have explored and tested the viability of alternative ideas and new possibilities about the world and our place in it is, in fact, science. Science, in forcing us to constantly evaluate and reevaluate our existential position as human beings, is a constant reminder that there is an “outside”, a beyond, an unknown in which we are immersed and towards which we are bound. In other words, science, properly wielded, is freedom of mind. And with that step, hopefully, I find myself on firmer academic footing, now in the realm of exploring what the role of science education should be in the context of my goal of establishing a democratic classroom.

In a modern republic – in which nearly all aspects of ideas and power are governed by, transmitted through, mediated with, and built on science and technology – there can be no true agency without scientific literacy. Even over a century ago, Dewey foresaw this role for science in the broader context of democratic education when he wrote that “the function which science has to perform in the curriculum is that which it has performed for the race – emancipation” (Dewey 2004, p 221). Science is both a system of knowledge production and a mindset, a perspective on the world. It is the idea that the universe is knowable, and that our lives can be made better through the deliberate construction of a world that is friendly our shared needs and aspirations. It is the idea that the general may be deduced from the particular – and conversely that specific phenomena are the result of universal and coherent structures which we can both comprehend and extend. Certainly, our perception as human beings is limited, and the social consequences of scientific discoveries are subject to social and political influences. But this only reinforces the idea that science needs to not only be taught as a means of empowerment, but also that the social and moral questions that surround the use and abuse of scientific argument are made clear to students, who are, after all, the developing citizens of our shared democracy.

This desired end state, in which the developing citizen graduates from high school with knowledge of both scientific content and context, is what I mean by the term scientific literacy.  Because many of the respected, high-demand, and skilled professions of the modern world reside in science, engineering, and technology, inequity in opportunity to pursue these professions results in a much wider social disparity beyond just who does or does not do well in a science classroom.  Further, while science is always ostensibly used to help people, it is a tool that can also be wielded for harmful, destructive, or manipulative purposes. Science which is politicized suffers from accusations of manipulative agendas, and the science which touches on contemporary social issues is often labeled as “controversial” or “disputed” by those whose world-view or livelihood is threatened. It is easy to see how the science classroom is politically vulnerable to interests that would reduce it to a safe (and nicely quantifiable) diet of equations, proofs, and rote memorization – all of which symbolize what Freire (2000) called the banking model of education, and which run counter to a democratic and liberating concept of scientific literacy.

The uncomfortable truth is that science cannot ever be de-politicized or de-socialized. Science is always conducted toward some end, and these ends are driven (and funded) based on socio-political objectives and needs. To isolate science from the other disciplines and focus purely on its quantitative aspects is to strip science of its essential humanity, and relegate it to the safe sterility of some abstract laboratory in the public imagination. This dehumanization of the field in effect denies students the civic empowerment of being scientifically literate citizens, regardless of whether or not they go on to become scientists or engineers in their careers. And further, we must recall that there is a faction within society that would be quite happy if equitable access to this form of civic empowerment were denied.

Though scientific literacy is the key to the development of certain important distinctive capacities (and thus the acquisition of agency), it is not enough to simply arm students with the content of science. Bloom (1987) puts it bluntly: “In general, [science] increases man’s power without increasing his virtue, hence increasing his power to do both good and evil” (p 298). If given the power of scientific reasoning, students must also be given the moral tools to make community-based judgments about their own scientific conclusions and that of others in a social context; otherwise, as Dewey warned, the result will be just as fatal to democracy as an ignorant and undeveloped citizenry.

Fortunately, Bloom also points us to the missing link: “Science has broken off from the self-consciousness about science that was the core of ancient science. This loss of self-consciousness is somehow connected with the banishment of poetry” (p 298).  What Bloom laments throughout most of The Closing of the American Mind is the decay of holistic interconnectedness between the academic disciplines – the loss of what he calls the unity of knowledge, the idea that all disciplines, including literature and art, point us in the same direction (toward a metaphysical understanding of the self and humanity), each from its own perspective and domain of inquiry. In light of this observation, I conclude that the manner in which scientific literacy can best be taught in the service of establishing democratic classrooms is one that treats science as it once was: as natural philosophy, the branch of metaphysics – the study of the self as it relates to what is – that can be empirically tested against nature.

Restoring the exploration of science in its original context as natural philosophy reintroduces the element most precious to Freire’s (2000) problem-posing model of education back into science: the quest for an individual sense of place. A problem-posing science classroom, a liberated science classroom, a democratic science classroom can provide: a perspective that the universe is a beautiful and endlessly fascinating arena full of challenge and discovery — and that therefore, on that principle alone, it is worthy of study and exploration; an understanding of the rigorous tools of scientific analysis and inquiry that have allowed us as a species to discard illusions and improve our standard of living; further, a realization that they must use these tools daily as citizens in the modern world as a defense against manipulation by interests who would misrepresent science for self-serving ends; and lastly, a cohesive story of our human quest for truth — the part that has been grounded in empiricism and fueled by curiosity — which has brought us to our present understanding of what we are, where we came from, and where we are going. This perspective is that which can provide the moral and social context needed to bridge the content of science with the social return that we must expect from citizens in a true democracy.

The train of logic has been thus: Firstly, democracy depends on both the development of distinctive capacities in all people and the cultivation of their moral context in providing a social return to the common good. It is manifestly the role of the public education system to ensure that these aims are met in all students as developing participants in a true and just democracy. The educator, as the interface between the student and the matrices of power in society, has the moral imperative to act toward the liberation of each and every student through the implementation of problem-posing education, resulting in the sharing of power and the acquisition of agency by students. It is observed that, owning to the pervasive role of science and technology in the present condition of the species, it is impossible to have true human agency in a modern context without scientific literacy. Further, the scientific mindset itself is one that inherently promotes intellectual emancipation. Thus, the method by which science in the curriculum can be pressed into the service of establishing democratic classrooms (in the sense of Dewey and Freire) is through deliberate action by the public science educator to ensure the acquisition of moral scientific literacy by all students.

The above philosophic argument has at its base a certain idea of what democracy is and what our relationship to each other and the world should be as humans in the context of a democracy. This idea is rooted in my social location as the child of South Asian immigrants, as well my individual reaction to the dissonance of identity resulting from recognition of the consequences of my social location.  In an increasingly secularized and post-modernist world, a moral argument for how and why I believe science should be taught runs the risk of being perceived as archaic or academically illegitimate. But as Nieto (2003) reminds us, teaching in any holistic sense is inseparable from who we are as people. What I have chosen to believe about the moral nature of the world and human action within it, including the ontological place of the scientific perspective in promoting freedom of mind, leads me inexorably towards placing my philosophy of education in the service of emancipation and in the framework of natural philosophy.

That eminent prophet of science, Carl Sagan, wrote in The Demon-Haunted World:

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual” (Sagan 2006, p 29).

I can think of no better intention for a science educator than to instill Sagan’s sense of awe before the universe in every student – indeed, I believe it is the key to unlocking their self-actualization, and a necessary component of their acquisition of agency as the rising citizens of an enlightened democracy.

 

WORKS CITED

Bloom, A. (1987). The Closing of the American Mind: How High Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Dewey, J. (2004). Democracy and Education. New York: Dover. (Originally published in 1916).

De los Reyes, E. and Gozemba, P.A. (2002). Introduction: Education as the Practice of Freedom. In Pockets of Hope: How Students and Teachers Change the World. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin and Garvey.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Edition. London: Bloomsbury Academic. Ch 2, pp 71-86. (Originally published in 1967).

Garcia-Lopez, S. P. (2002). Swimming against the Mainstream: Examining Cultural Assumptions in the Classroom. In Learning to teach for social justice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. pp 22-29.

Giroux, H. (2008). Rethinking the Promise of Critical Education under an Obama Regime. Interview. December 2008.

Harro, B. (2008). The Cycle of Socialization. In M. Adams, W. Blumenfeld, C. Castañeda, H. Hackman, M. Peters and X. Zúñiga (Eds.), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. 2nd ed. (2010), New York: Routledge. pp 45-51.

Kant, I. (2007). Antithetic of Pure Reason. In M. Weigelt (Translator), Critique of Pure Reason. New York: Penguin Classics. Second division, book II, chapter II, section II, pp 378-484. (First published in Prussia, 1781).

Lee, S.J. (2008).  Model Minorities and Perpetual Foreigners: The Impact of Stereotyping on Asian American Students.  In M. Sadowski (Ed.), Adolescents at school: Perspectives on Youth, Identity, and Education.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Education Press.  Ch 4, pp 74-83.

Nieto, Sonia. (2003). Teaching as Autobiography. In What keeps teachers going? New York: Teachers College Press. Ch 2, pp 22-36.

Tatum, B.D. (2000). The Complexity of Identity: Who Am I? In M. Adams, W. Blumenfeld, C. Castañeda, H. Hackman, M. Peters and X. Zúñiga (Eds.), Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. 2nd ed. (2010), New York: Routledge. pp 8-14.

Sagan, C. (1996). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine.

Suarez-Orozco, C., Quin, D.B., & Amthor, R.F. (2008).  Adolescents from Immigrant Families: Relationships and Adaptations at School.  In M. Sadowski (Ed.), Adolescents at School: Perspectives on Youth, Identity, and Education.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Education Press. Ch 3.



Roxanna Elden on hanging in there

Roxanna Elden, as interviewed on NPR, said exactly what I needed right now:

ELDEN: First of all, you have to hang in there because you have to know that it’s that time of year. And also, it helps to know I think, the great teachers of the future know they’re not great yet. They want so badly to be everything that these students need them to be, but at the same time they are very hard on themselves when they fall short. So if you have those moments where you’re wondering – like what I wondered was, you know, how did these teachers get – these kids get stuck with a teacher like me, that can actually be a sign of kind of a point in your growth. It’s a low point that it still points in becoming a teacher that you hope to be.

I was pretty hard on myself earlier this week when I was grading lab reports. It was just so painfully clear in retrospect how I should have structured the lab differently. Seems like the students did learn about applying some experimental techniques, but there are still some raging misconceptions about acceleration. Considering the amount of time and effort it took on the part of both students and instructors to arrive at only a small amount of apparent learning, this was a costly error. However, it was valuable too, and I just need to keep that in mind and make the right changes for next time.



Literacy in the Science Classroom

I’ve been thinking a lot about literacy across the curriculum since I took a class called… well, Literacy Across the Curriculum. As a science teacher in training, I suppose one might wonder why I would want to think so much about literacy, but the more I do the more I realize how important it will be.

Literacy as a goal is an important prerequisite for science instruction as it is a primary means by which science content is accessed. In other words, a student’s aptitude for, learning of, and/or inclination towards science may be irrelevant if they are unable to read the textbook, write what they know on an exam, or share their thoughts with peers. This means that it isn’t enough to simply focus on content. Literacy as the means by which science is accessed in effect makes it my job as a science teacher to ensure functional literacy in my students.

Literacy as a process is also an important tool that may be used to open up many oft-neglected aspects of science education. I am saddened and/or annoyed when I come across people who assume science is little more than crunching equations, sitting at a computer, or conducting solitary experiments in an isolated laboratory. But given how education and the media present science to the public, who can blame them?

Science which is politicized suffers from accusations of manipulative agendas, and the science which touches on contemporary social issues is often labeled as “controversial” or “disputed.” Human-caused climate change, the link between vaccinations and autism, the veracity of Darwinian evolution, ethical considerations of genetic engineering, the origins of our planet and universe, the appropriateness of funding for scientific endeavors — these are all issues in contemporary American life that are highly interwoven with scientific research and discourse. There are many more examples ranging from the mundane to the cosmic. Nearly every aspect of daily modern life is influenced by science, yet in many cases, science education can remain far removed from a place of relevance in students’ lives.

It seems to me that as education experiences a push towards increasing quantification in the name of accountability, the scientific and mathematical disciplines have been particularly susceptible to a systematic gutting of all that is not quantifiable. The ease with which certain aspects of science and math (e.g. numeracy and equation solving) may be quantified has made it just as easy to push out the “fuzzier” aspects of these two disciplines, reinforcing a negative feedback loop of misconception regarding what science actually is.

Real science cannot ever be de-politicized or de-socialized. Science is always conducted towards some end, and these ends are driven (and funded) based on socio-political objectives and needs. To isolate science from the other disciplines and focus purely on its quantitative aspects is to strip science of its essential humanity, and relegate it to the safe sterility of some abstract laboratory in the public imagination.

Ironically, it is imagination that is perhaps the most neglected aspect of science education. Science is two-sided in this fashion. On the one hand, study of what is, how the world works and our relationship to it. On the other, it must also be an imagining of what could be. The latter aspect is the core of what drives innovation, research, and scientific progress, and it is tied intimately with cross-disciplinary, out-of-the-box thinking.

This will be a major focus of my residency year I think. Lot’s to try and figure out here, maybe for the rest of my career.



Pardon the Disruption – We Just Love Each Other

As posted by me this morning on the Boston Teacher Residency blog:

If you were at a certain bar and grill on Boylston Street in Back Bay last Friday night, you may have noticed a large group of constantly-smiling people who had apparently transformed a significant fraction of the underground bar into their own eight-hour raucous dance party. You would have noticed that said party continued to exude warmth regardless of incredulous stares and even the slightly awkward attempts by others to join in. You would have heard vigorous debates on race as a social construct and multidimensional n-branes as a fundamental building block of spacetime. And you would have heard a lot of overpowering laughter, swelling repeatedly like a tidal wave trying to drown the room in our good times.

Um, yeah, so that was us. A bunch of urban public school teachers in training. Hi. Allow me to attempt to explain our exuberance in disrupting your regularly scheduled evening at the bar.

The context for our party was a desperate, pent-up need to have a great time after what I can only lightly characterize as “a rough week.” We explored (many of us for the first time) how ugly, pervasive, and seemingly inescapable some of the injustices in the world are. We all lived out multiple examples of how none of us, no matter how committed we are to social justice or how much we have suffered or studied, are immune from the very systemic biases we are trying to correct. All in all, it was a painful and emotionally raw week in many ways. By the time Friday afternoon rolled around, we were asking ourselves, “In spite of all this, what is it that gives us hope? What makes us think we can do this?”

I heard many good answers to that question in class, but I saw a great answer to that question in what happened after class: that in the face of the darkness of the moment, our unconscious response was love.

In retrospect, I think now about how we were easily the most diverse group in the room, on so many levels: race, class, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, educational background, family dynamics, where we grew up, how we talk, and so many others. We were such an obvious grab-bag of different kinds of people together. And we were positively radiating a lot of love for each other and having an amazing time, oblivious to how anyone else was looking at us. Say what you will about our sense of decorum, but no one could have been in that bar and not felt the love.

In Language, Power and Democracy class we talked about creating “Islands of Decency” and “Pockets of Hope.” Perhaps few of the people who observed us on Friday would consciously frame it in these terms. But as a group I think that we are a pretty awesome Island of Decency and Pocket of Hope ourselves—just in who we are and how we treat each other. Maybe someone who saw us will remember our faces laughing and dancing together—and internalize a small kernel of what humanity could be like if we tried. If that vague memory of us changes even one action by one person for the better, then we did some good for the world just by showing it how much we can love each other.

I am forced to an unavoidably cheesy but logically inescapable conclusion: that we can succeed in this endeavor by making a moral choice to believe in love and living our lives like we mean it. Maybe this is how we can make the impossible possible.



Review of “’78”, by Bill Reynolds

'78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City‘78: The Boston Red Sox, A Historic Game, and a Divided City by Bill Reynolds
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bill Reynolds dives into far more than a great baseball game in this account of the 1978 American League East playoff game between the Red Sox and the Damnyankees. Here baseball in Fenway Park is placed in the context of the racial, social, and economic divisions ravaging Boston at the time. Reynolds tells the tale of a city struggling to reconcile a view of itself as an enlightened center of civilization against the ugly hatred and violence that was daily tearing Boston apart during the bussing era of school integration. Underneath it all, we see more than racial questions — the story of a suburban elite sacrificing the futures of inner city children like checker pieces, playing the suspicions of the city’s poorest (Blacks and Irish) against each other for the sake of politics.

‘78 seems well-written but poorly edited. The juxtaposition of jumping between a play-by-play of the baseball game itself and the zoomed-out view of the contemporary context is not managed well, and the overall impression becomes one of disorganization. Similes and metaphors are sometimes repeated often enough to get tiresome. The chapters feel less like parts of a whole and more like individual columns pasted together.

Despite my criticisms, I did find it to be an enjoyable read. I was repeatedly brought into the historical foundations for many of the modern fractures I will have to confront myself as a future teacher in Boston’s urban neighborhood schools. I liked getting a look into the past of the Red Sox certainly; but I think more importantly I have taken away a more thoughtful view of the present state of the city.

View all my reviews.



Why Education

“THE COMMONWEALTH REQUIRES THE EDUCATION OF THE PEOPLE AS THE SAFEGUARD OF ORDER AND LIBERTY”

– North facade (Boylston St.), Boston Public Library



Um, Yes Actually, We Should Learn Hard Math

Andrew Hacker has written a mind-numbingly inane Op-Ed for the New York Times, entitled “Is Algebra Necessary?”, in which he opines:

A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail. Why do we subject American students to this ordeal? I’ve found myself moving toward the strong view that we shouldn’t.

[…]

Yes, young people should learn to read and write and do long division, whether they want to or not. But there is no reason to force them to grasp vectorial angles and discontinuous functions. Think of math as a huge boulder we make everyone pull, without assessing what all this pain achieves. So why require it, without alternatives or exceptions? Thus far I haven’t found a compelling answer.

Can I just highlight the absurdly self-centered fallacy of Hacker’s perspective? I would love to hear the logical contortions this “writer and social scientist” might present if I asked him why I should have been required to learn history, literature, government, and the arts if I was in school to be an engineer. I can think of no concrete argument (taking Hacker’s premises as the foundation) which could possibly justify why any of these subjects should be necessary for technical professions.

Maybe I missed something, but I thought the whole point of education was to expose us to new ideas and make us well-rounded citizens, prepared to critically analyze the information being presented to us, reflect on our role and potential in society, and be able choose among many paths later in life. Hacker seems to have a more short-term and utilitarian view of the purpose of schooling; one that I find blindly compartmentalizing and reductionist.

I’ve gotta hand it to him though — lowering your standards to the point where they are already met is a pretty effective method of removing things that are hard from your life.



Man Up: Be a Teacher

Something about my visit to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative a couple of weeks ago stuck with me, and it’s only recently that my percolating thoughts on the matter have condensed into something bloggable.

During the welcome presentation, a gentleman from the board of DSNI (or possibly DSNCS) came in to say hi. He spoke briefly but warmly. On the way out he turned and added: “And by the way. Fellas. Where you at? Stand up, stand up. [applause] Fellas, I’m glad you’re here. Ladies too, but fellas… thank you for being here.”

At the time, I was caught off guard by the attention and the words. I think that was the first time it really directly occurred to me that I might want to think about what it means to be a male teacher.

Among my reading since then has been G. Jeffrey MacDonald’s article in the Christian Science Monitor, “Too Few Good Men.” The following passage really hit a chord:

On the one hand, a recent survey shows that men continue to shun the field of early childhood education for seemingly timeless reasons: low pay, low status, and stereotypes about teaching youngsters as being a feminine endeavor. Add to the list a heightened fear of being accused of sexual abuse, and the result is a field saddled with a mounting image problem when it comes to recruiting men.

On the other hand, many children without a father at home crave a male presence in the predominantly female domain of elementary school. And as the push for more male teachers grows, a chorus of voices is delivering a fresh case for why men should consider teaching youngsters: They need what men have to offer uniquely as men.

“We all need someone to emulate,” says Bryan Nelson, a former teacher and director of MenTeach, a Minnesota-based organization for the recruitment of male teachers. “Men show boys what they could become. And girls need to see a nurturing male in order to see what kind of men they’d like to have in their lives.”

I then tried looking at Census data to help me characterize the issue in my head, and discovered via KidsCount that 55% of Boston’s children are growing up in a single-parent home (2010). Of all single-parent families, approximately 84% (nationally) are headed by women. One estimate puts the proportion of fatherless homes in urban communities at around 70%.

So the upshot is that there has been a dawning realization over the last few weeks that this isn’t just about poverty, good science education, and closing the achievement gap — in many cases, I might actually be one of a very few men, and perhaps even the only male role model, consistently in the day-to-day life of my students.

By no stretch does that mean that I should, or even can, replace a father figure. But it does mean that I have the potential to create a profoundly positive or negative impact on how my students, of either gender, view men and deal with men in their adult lives. I will be part of a fabric that can help fight gender role stereotypes, strengthen character, and redefine what “manhood” means to the next generation. That’s a humbling and empowering thought.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. The flip side of the male teacher issue hardly needs explication. Just Google for “male teacher” in the news. As Lauren Cox puts it in “The Mistrusted Male Teacher” :

Nelson, who took a graduate fellowship at Harvard to study men in secondary school teaching, found that overzealous suspicions of sexual abuse are one of the top three reasons why the teaching profession doesn’t draw more men. From his research, the other two reasons are perceptions about men’s nurturing abilities and low social status combined with low pay.

Graham Holley, chief executive of the Training and Development Agency for Schools (U.K.) spells it out more explicitly:

“In my view, the biggest obstacle is society’s attitude. Men are deterred, partly because there is a prurient element of society that questions the motivation when men wish to work closely with young children.

“That is an immensely sad indictment of the way, in this so-called enlightened century, we can still be so uncritically suspicious of people who share the most selfless of motives: to help improve young lives.

“This fear of being labelled a pedophile is the single biggest deterrent to men who would otherwise consider teaching in our primary schools”

(quoted by Martin Beckford in The Telegraph)

That particular quote is for primary school, in which we have the most severe dearth of male teachers, and you can find plenty more with a simple internet search. While I acknowledge the particularly high need for male teachers at the primary school level, I also couldn’t search for “Male High School Teacher” (or any variants) without having to wade through news media on sexual abuse, teacher-student sex scandals, and harassment allegations.

As an unmarried male in my twenties going into a high school classroom, this clearly has an effect on how others will perceive me and how I perceive my roles and boundaries. The implicit message I’m getting is “Toe the line, or you’re done. Even if you do toe the line, you might be done anyway.” That is, even if I do nothing wrong, the system appears to have perception bias and suspicion against me from the start. How do I reconcile this with what everyone agrees is a huge need for more healthy and appropriate adult male relationships with youth?

On the one hand, I have a powerful chance to be a much-needed positive male role model for my students, including adolescent female students. On the other hand, I may have to be fighting a constant uphill battle against society’s perceptions of the teaching profession as it relates to masculinity.

This is whole thing is not a light subject it turns out, and by the way I haven’t even taught yet, so I’m sure this will be an evolving reflection over the next few years and perhaps beyond. I don’t have answers to these questions, and maybe I won’t for a long time. I’m still excited for the challenge though.

On a more amusing note, Nelson (quoted in Cox, cited above) also appears to hold a dim view of the effect my career transition from research engineering to teaching will have on my dating life:

“And if you’re a single man and you’re going out to date somebody, when they ask you ‘what do you do?’ it just doesn’t have the same cache [sic] as saying I’m an engineer or a scientist.”

I guess I wasn’t aware that science nerds and enginerds were a particularly hot commodity; though to be fair, I don’t think I ever tried the “hey baby, I’m a rocket scientist” line at a bar. The times I could have had… ah well, too late now. Guess I might as well work on that positive male role model schtick and see what that does for me. It’s not like it’s rocket science — in fact, I think it might be harder.



My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation Of Underprivileged Kids vs. Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher

Link: My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation Of Underprivileged Kids vs. Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher

Ahhhh, The Onion. Yep. This sort of speaks for itself.



A little light evening reading…




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