The Very Spring and Root

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

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Is intelligence something you have, or something you get?

It’s only two days into orientation, and we don’t even start formal classes until next Monday. But already there has been much in BTR to challenge me and prompt reflection.

In the first place, the cohort is incredibly diverse, not just in ethnic background and gender but also in content area, family social class, politics, perspectives, and preferred approach to intellectual discussion. The very fact of such a broad cross-section of people in the same room, all educated and passionate, is bound to create a sense of hugeness to this endeavor. We also realize that, in order to effectively address our common purpose, we must face head-on a disturbingly large number of interconnected issues together, all of which even individually are normally “third rail” topics in polite and professional conversation. The resulting mix is as charged as a thunderstorm, yet affirming and heady at the same time.

My favorite discussion so far has been a small-group breakout session on Resnik and Hall’s “Principles of Learning for Effort-Based Education”. In it, the two authors explore the social and cultural forces that shape how we Americans often harbor misconceptions about the nature of aptitude, effort, and intelligence. They attempt to create a new working definition for “intelligence” based on cognitive and social science research. I won’t summarize the whole nuanced article here, but rather focus on a specific facet:

The core problem is that our strong belief in the importance of intelligence and aptitude leads to a devaluing of effort.

Most of the discussion focused on the the negative side of this (i.e. that low expectations of students can drive a self-fulfilling cycle of low-performance), and I think deservedly so since this is a central impediment to learning in urban schools. However, in reflecting later, I wondered if unreasonable positive expectations might be detrimental in their own way too.

An example, using “positive” ethnic stereotypes. I remember a Filipino friend of mine telling me that growing up, she was afraid of being seen as “the dumb Asian”, and therefore was afraid of doing anything that might reveal incompetence or lack of knowledge. In other words, the superficially positive perception that Asians (both east and south) somehow have a natural aptitude for learning and “just get it” or are “just smart” can make them feel socially pressured to appear as if they understand and don’t need to put in a high amount of effort to do so. Outwardly, they may have become good at “faking it”, latching onto key phrases and repackaging them for their peers and teachers, but inwardly they may really want to ask a question or admit they don’t understand the why and the how. Or, they may decline to use study hours to indicate that they are above all that, but make things harder for themselves later when they have to rush in privacy. Thus, a great amount of material is memorized and repackaged (great for standardized test scores and even grades in many classrooms), but little in the way of actual thinking and learning have taken place.

In any of these cases, the student’s learning is still compromised by a devaluing of effort brought on by perceptions of intelligence and aptitude, even though the perception is, on the surface, a positive one.

Anyway, soooo many more thoughts on this and other subjects, but alas, many other items on the to-do list at the moment. Summary: I love this program, and can’t wait for Day 3 tomorrow (we got the day off for the holiday).

Next on the list: beer and socializing with my new cohort! Very important.

Happy Independence Day everyone! Toward a more perfect union…

This is SO going on my physics classroom wall when I have one. Love it.



“Just” a Teacher

EdWeek recently ran an interesting article on the social status of teachers in this country vs abroad. The opening paragraphs of the article got me thinking right away:

One of the most troubling things that the 2010 National Teacher of the Year, Sarah Brown Wessling, hears about her profession can be summed up in a single observation: the idea that she and other top-performing colleagues are “just” teachers.

The word “just” serves as a reminder of a subtle mindset among some in the United States that a career in K-12 teaching, while considered noble, is nevertheless somehow seen as beneath the capacity of talented young men and women.

The response that I have received to my decision to change careers from research engineering to teaching has been mixed. Family and close friends have been overwhelmingly supportive, and I am grateful for that; I’m certainly going to need all the positive thoughts I can get. Even the colleagues here at NASA, the ones whom I will soon be leaving, have responded in large part with inspired encouragement. For example, even though I am not leaving for 4-5 more months, three coworkers have already stopped by with donations of references, materials, posters, and objects for my future science classroom.

However, NASA is itself a place full of intelligent, passionate, idealistic people, so perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised at this kind of a response from my coworkers. The general public response when the subject has been brought up is more along the lines of “Wow… that’s pretty cool. But that’s insane. Why would you do that?”

Certainly there are very practical reasons to not do what I did, but the underlying problem is an ugly one: why should it have to be such a sacrifice to teach? As much as people say they see individual teachers as noble and pursuing high calling, the same people seem on the whole opposed to putting through the reforms we need to address this.  Because simultaneously, these same people (us, we) are the voters, who are reluctant to raise salaries for a profession which as a collective is increasingly being perceived as bureaucratically bloated, ineffective, and even overpaid.

I don’t buy it. There may indeed be areas of mismanagement, wasteful bureaucracy, and antagonistic protectionism that need fixing, but on the whole I think JFK had it right:

Modern cynics and skeptics … see no harm in paying to those whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing.
— John F. Kennedy

It’s half a century later… and here we still are.

How do we make it so that a qualified engineer deciding to go into teaching isn’t a big deal, isn’t seen as something crazy, but is maybe even lauded as an achievement? I don’t think all of that has to do with money, though money certainly is a factor. There’s also the concept of professionalism, which implies a sense of individual discretion in the approach to the objective. There is independence from criticism arising from external entities. There is the perceived selectivity of entry. Addressing each of these will require a hard look at training, standards, personnel practices, and how the money gets spent. Only in conjunction with this can we credibly ask for the commitment to increase spending on education overall.

Beyond all this though, is a more fundamental issue: there must be a respect for the end result of the service being provided.

I shared the above article with Dr. Christian Gelzer, a historian and former professor of history. He is also someone I count as a valued confidante and mentor. I quote his response below, with permission:

If you denigrate a pursuit, as Americans have done for teaching for generations and generations, what more can one expect? I still point to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life as a pivotal work on the subject because he traced a genuine animosity toward intellectual activity from the late Colonial period on. Even better, it won the Pulitzer that year, most ironic. Think of all those who “made it” without book learnin’ and you’ve got a list of American greats, including Andrew Carnegie, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, to list but three. Even Thomas Jefferson had a warm spot in his heart for people of the soil, far warmer than he ever had for those who created factories (stuff that took brains). This isn’t a recent problem in the US and it won’t be fixed in five lifetimes, I’ll wager. The culture simply does not, has not, and never will value the likes of JQ Adams or those who—and I think this is integral to the problem—would pursue a calling or career not because it gives the best income, but because it rewards the soul and contributes to the commonweal one is a part of in a nation. Those are downright impolitic things to say.

I was a teacher, albeit at a different level, and I was forever frustrated by the abject indifference my former profession held for teaching—indeed, I was warned many times not to say that I liked teaching when I went on a job interview. I was never taught how to teach, doubtlessly because my mentors could not have cared less about the act, and because they probably assumed we’d all pick up what little we needed to get by by stumbling through it the first time. I enjoyed teaching, I relished trying to figure out how to get students to understand why we keep harping on the Romans so many centuries later, or why looking for the ones who make the decisions about things can be really rewarding, even when the culprits (I say that fondly) had the peculiarities of Nikola Tesla. You could no sooner make someone a teacher in 6 weeks than you could make a carrier-qualified F-18 navy pilot in 6 weeks, and anyone who says so or thinks so is as dumb as a bag of hammers. But will we as a nation, as a people ever come around to the idea of having our children aching for the chance to become a teacher?

I have to agree in large part with Christian’s sentiments. A culture that has devolved to, for example, demand that a candidate for office mask, or even apologize for, the fact that he or she is an educated intellectual is not a culture which will be sustainable as a democracy. Yet this this happens all the time today. See if you can count how often President Obama has been characterized as an “out-of-touch liberal elitist” for his “condescending and professorial” manner. Sure, he is remarkably well-educated; but regardless of one’s politics it says something when demagogues can successfully apply those labels to him despite the fact that he grew up well outside of the elite class in a single-parent home, slept on the street in an alleyway the first night he moved to Harlem, and was working as a community organizer in the south-side projects of Chicago.

How do we turn around that culture? Is it even possible to associate status with knowledge in a country in which some educators make as little as $20,000 or so per year and our celebrities and athletes make hundreds of millions? Not that those figures need to be reversed, but the the distance between those extremes should at least be… well, less extreme.

The money issue and the rigor issue are controversial subjects full of heated debate today. What is sobering is that they seem to be only the surface expression of a much deeper problem. And I have no idea what to do about that.  All I know is I’m going to try and be the best educator I can be, and hopefully the path forward will become clearer as I go.