"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Gorilla in the Room

by Susan Ohanian

Note: When Lisa Sanders' book was published in 2009, I wrote a version of this essay. Now, with Achieve the Core banging the drum even more loudly for  teachers to Connect classroom instruction to assessment, it's time to post it again.

Lisa Sanders, M. D., author of the New York Times Magazine "Diagnosis" column, and technical Advisor to the TV show "House, M.D.," offers many provocative stories in Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis. The gorilla story is my favorite.

 Sanders was invited by Dr. Marvin Chun, professor in the Visual Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Yale to view a video quite famous in the field of vision and attention. Two teams, one dressed in white, one in black, are in the corridor of an unidentified office building. Each team has a basketball. Sanders' job was to watch the white team and keep track of how many times the ball was passed between players, keeping separate counts of when it was passed overhead and when it was bounced from person to person.

The image started to move and I kept my eyes glued to the white team's basketball as it was passed silently among the moving mass of black and white bodies. I got up to six overhead passes and one bounce pass and I lost track. Determined not to give up, I kept going until the thirty-second video was complete.

Eleven overhead passes and two bounce passes? I ventured. I told Chun that I got a little confused in the middle. Despite that, I'd done a good job, he told me. I missed only one overhead pass. Then he asked, "Did you see anything unusual in the video?" Other than the unusual setting for the game, no, I saw nothing at all out of the ordinary.

"Did you see a gorilla in the video?"

A gorilla? No, I had definitely not seen a gorilla.

"I'm going to show you the video again, and this time, no counting, just look at the game." He restarted the video. The white and black teams sprang back into action. Eighteen seconds into the game--around the time I lost my concentration--I saw someone (a woman, I find out later) in a gorilla suit enter the hallway court on the right. She strolled casually to the middle of the frame, beat her chest like a cartoon gorilla from a children's TV show, then calmly exited out of the left side of the picture. Her on-camera business lasted eight seconds and I hadn't seen her at all.

If you had asked me if I thought that I could miss a gorilla--or even a woman in a gorilla suit--strolling through the picture, I would have agreed that it was impossible to overlook such an extraordinary event. And yet I did. So did more than half of those who were given the same task by Daniel J. Simmons in his lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. How is that possible?

We have tremendous faith in our ability to see what is in front of our eyes. And yet the world provides us with millions of examples that this is not the case. . . . Researchers call this phenomenon "inattention blindness" because we often fail to notice an object or event simply because we are preoccupied with an attentionally demanding task. . . .

As it turns out, most of the time we see what we want to see, what we expect to see. Our ability to see objects or events that are unexpected and dissimilar to those that we are looking for is extremely limited. . . .

Based on research like this, Chun and many other researchers in this area now believe that the expectations of the viewer are the primary shapers of what is seen, and that the unexpected will often be missed. We become better seers when we have better expectations. When you are given a specific task--follow the ball as it's passed between members of the white team--you can predict what the expectations might be, and that observers are unlikely to see the passing gorilla because it's not in their set of expectations.

What about in situations where you are looking but the task is more complex--the way it is in real life, or in the hospital taking care of patients? If their theory is true, what you see and what you don't see will be shaped by what your experiences have led you to expect. Perhaps Osler was mistaken when he said that more diagnoses were missed because of not seeing than not knowing. Perhaps not knowing is what caused not seeing.

I find this stunning. She didn't see a gorilla. A gorilla. 

 But as someone who has been privileged to observe classrooms closely in 28 states, as someone who sat in the third grade classroom of a very good teacher for six weeks, I can report that no teacher can "see" more than about half of what is happening in a good classroom, a classroom where student choice is dominant.

 Our corporate mouthpieces in Congress, at the US Department of Education,  at the National Governors Association as well as people writing the editorials for major newspapers could not see the gorilla in the classroom if it sat on their Blackberries. They are so busy counting things--and demanding that teachers count things--that they haven't a clue of what classrooms are about, what kids need, or what teachers' real jobs might look like.

And consider all the gorillas in the room that the teacher will miss when she is forced to devote her students' attention on test prep for consonant blends, apostrophes, or fractions. My point here is not that teachers should ignore such skills but that she must ever keep them in their place. And keep ever alert for what the grand philosopher of science David Hawkins called the bird in the window. Bird in the window/gorilla in the room. . . Choose the metaphor that appeals to you. And keep your eye on the real children, not the numbers ground out by some corporate conglomerate.

Any teacher worth her salt knows that children's learning does not have any close connection with adult lesson plans. You can lead a child to long division but that doesn't make him grasp it. And what he grasps one minute surely will disappear ten minutes later. Of course, if you drill kids on the multiplication facts every day for a month, they will do better on a test on multiplication facts than children who were not drilled. However, again to quote Hawkins, "We're not interested in one-month results; we're interested in, let's say, seven years." And the test for that hasn't been devised.

Hang this from banners in every school in the land: We're not interested in one-month results. Tattoo it on principals' foreheads.

Writing in 1969, Hawkins insisted that "a fundamental aim of education is to organize schools, classrooms and our own performance as teachers in order to help children acquire the capacity for significant choice, and that learning is really a process of choice. If children are deprived of significant choice in their daily activities in school, if all their choices are made for them, then the most important thing that education is concerned with is simply being bypassed."

How quaint that seems now when choice isn't even considered for children and is also systematically removed from teachers, where teachers are required to follow a script while monitors roam the hall to make sure they're on the right page.

Hawkins rightly insisted that there's an essential lack of predictability about what's going to happen in a good classroom, not because there is no control but precisely because there is control of the right kind. In a good classroom the teacher bases her decisions on what she sees children doing. She pays close attention to the accidental things that happen along the way, the things nobody can anticipate. That gorilla. That bird in the window.

In Hawkins' words, "Everybody knows that the best times in teaching have always been the consequences of some little accident that happened to direct attention in some new way, to revitalize an old interest which has died out or to create a brand new interest that you hadn't had any notion about how to introduce. Suddenly, there it is. The bird flies in the window and that's the miracle you needed. Somebody once said about great discoveries in science,' Accidents happen to those that deserve them.'

Read that paragraph again and weep: Weep for pedagogy, for teachers, and for children. Today, the predictability of classrooms is devised by publishing/testing conglomerate committees and shipped out across the country. Today, Arne Duncan wants national standards so that all classroom will be alike, and there will be no "accidents."

In the Bill Clinton/George Bush 1 & 2/ Barack Obama model, teachers are denied the capacity for significant choice. And instead of fighting for teachers and children, the NEA, AFT, NCTE, IRA, and all the rest of the camp followers ask for a seat at the corporate table. They exhibit both 

  •  an overweening confidence in their own abilities to negotiate with power

  •   a boot-licking need to sit next to power instead of  fighting for what's right.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Personalization or Profiling? Childhood in the Ed-Tech Era

from Wrench in the Gears
October 30, 2016

As states pull together their plans for ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) it's important for parents and teachers to understand what the next phase of education reform looks like. This slide share presented at the Movement of Rank and File Educators' Social Justice Curriculum Fair in New York City recently provides a good introduction. Click on the graphic above for the slide show and be sure to explore the links that are included.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Standing Rock and the Earth vs Big Oil

 Bill McKibben has an op-ed in the NYTimes on the latest global warming flash point and human rights atrocity in the making in North Dakota.  A clip:
. . . . Originally, the pipeline was supposed to cross the Missouri just north of Bismarck, until people pointed out that a leak there would threaten the drinking water supply for North Dakota’s second biggest city. The solution, in keeping with American history, was obvious: make the crossing instead just above the Standing Rock reservation, where the poverty rate is nearly three times the national average. This has been like watching the start of another Flint, Mich., except with a chance to stop it.

The second is that this is precisely the kind of project that climate science tells us can no longer be tolerated. In midsummer, the Obama administration promised that henceforth there would be a climate test for new projects before they could be approved. That promise was codified in the Democratic platform approved by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which says there will be no federal approval for any project that “significantly exacerbates” global warming.

The review of the Dakota pipeline must take both cases into account.

So far, the signs are not good. There has been no word from the White House about how long the current pause will last. Now, the company building the pipeline has pushed the local authorities to remove protesters from land where construction has already desecrated indigenous burial sites, with law enforcement agents using Tasers, batons, mace and “sound cannons.”

From the Clinton campaign, there’s been simply an ugly silence, perhaps rooted in an unwillingness to cross major contributors like the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which has lashed out against the many other, larger unions that oppose the project. But that silence won’t make the issue go away: Sioux protesters erected a tepee in her Brooklyn campaign office on Thursday. If Mrs. Clinton is elected on Nov. 8, this will be the new president’s first test on environmental and human rights.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Add "Stealth Assessment" to the List of Crackpot Learning Terms

Just the fact that there is someone making an academic career at an otherwise respectable university out of a dystopian thought disorder called "stealth assessment" should give us all pause.  

And yet there is Dr. Valerie Shute at Florida State University, who is now traveling the world as part of the fascist alienation child crusade for gamification and personalized robotification.

I hope you will put on your high-top boots and check out this slide show here.  The bullshit is running deep.  

One of the slides:

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Surveillance Capitalism and Your Children

There are thousands of rapacious and predatory gatherers of data out there waiting to collect and sell your information and your children's information, whether it is behavioral, economic, intellectual, social, geographic, nutritional, and even emotional in nature.

Follow this link (hat tip to Alison McDowell) to read about this newest form of capitalist predation.  Here is a clip:
There was a time when we laid responsibility for the assault on behavioral data at the door of the state and its security agencies.  Later, we also blamed the cunning practices of a handful of banks, data brokers, and Internet companies. Some attribute the assault to an inevitable  “age of big data,” as if it were possible to conceive of data born pure and blameless, data suspended in some celestial place where facts sublimate into truth.

Capitalism has been hijacked by surveillance

I’ve come to a different conclusion:  The assault we face is driven in large measure by the exceptional appetites of a wholly new genus of capitalism, a systemic coherent new logic of accumulation that I call surveillance capitalism. Capitalism has been hijacked by a lucrative surveillance project that subverts the “normal” evolutionary mechanisms associated with its historical success and corrupts the unity of supply and demand that has for centuries, however imperfectly, tethered capitalism to the genuine needs of its populations and societies, thus enabling the fruitful expansion of market democracy.
 And below is an intro to an innocent sounding  Google app called StackUp that collects and stores all your students' internet activity so that students can get "credit" for all their reading. Hey--it even claims to know if they are reading or if the page is just open.

Or have a look at this ad for Affectiva.  Sounds like a new child doping tool, right?  Well, it's a company that is using observational data via webcams to collect, analyze, and interpret facial expressions to "quanitfy emotion" and use this information to develop product lines.

Parents, teachers, and students can stop this massive intrusion, but it will take education and organization. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Wi-Fi, Children, and Democracy

There are many great reasons to avoid becoming part of the screen-sucking generation of alienated zombies: psychological reasons, developmental reasons, physical reasons, socio-cultural reasons, and even economic reasons.  

One of the best books on the subject is by Sherry Turkle, who lays out the case for becoming activists to save our children and the next generation of humans before it's too late.  

Turkle quotes verbatim this scene below of Louis C.K. on Conan O'Brien's show talking about why he does not buy cell phones for his kids:

Below is an Australian report examining the dangers of Wi-Fi for childen:

It's time to get in this battle in a serious way.  We can stop the cynical and greedy sonsofbitches who want to ruin our children and ruin our democratic values.

Understanding KIPP Model Charter Schools, Part 12: The Final KIPP Interview

Part 12 of Work Hard, Be Hard . . . focuses on the last teacher interview that I did for this book.  

I am still interviewing, however, so if you are a former "no excuses" charter teacher or student or administrator who wants to share your story for future publication, please contact me: james.horn@cambridgecollege.edu.

Chapter 12
The Final KIPP Interview
         My first interviews with former KIPP teachers began in 2011, and the last ones for this project were conducted in 2014.  The very last one was with a young woman who contacted me to tell her KIPP story, which had ended just a few days before our interview.  Like other former KIPP teachers, she stepped out of the darkness to speak, even though she feared reprisals and “harassment” from KIPP employees if her identity could be assigned to her words. 
As with so many other former KIPP teachers who left damaged by their experience, she is a former Teach for America corps member who taught two years in a poor public school before coming to KIPP.  She had suffered through her first TFA year finding out all that her college double major did not teach her about children and teaching, but by the second year she felt like she had hit her stride.  She had, nonetheless, decided to leave teaching when her two-year TFA commitment was up, when she was contacted by KIPP. 
KIPP had acquired her name as a prospective teacher from her first year teacher mentor, who previously had spent her first year as a teacher at a KIPP school.   Her mentor, she explained, was looking to cash in on large finder fees for new teachers hired from his leads if the new hires stayed at KIPP for at least 30 days.
         She was invited for an interview in an urban area large enough to have its own KIPP network, and she received a guided tour of the “most beautiful classrooms” and “perfectly-arranged classrooms.”  She was taken to lunch and to dinner, and 24 hours later she was offered a teaching job.  Since this KIPP school seemed to “have it together more” than the public school she was leaving, she took a risk and decided to give teaching one more try. 
Like other KIPP teachers, she started to work in early July.  On the first day of her second week at KIPP, she was part of a team-level meeting that included two program chairs and several other teachers, none of whom was new to KIPP.  At that meeting she heard this:  “Because you're hired here doesn't mean that you're anything more than a warm body. Until you prove yourself worthy of my trust you will not have it.”  The colleague who offered this warning, she found out later, had students with the highest test scores in the school, which provided him great a deal of latitude for his words and actions, regardless of how callous or foolish they might be. 
         This was her first exposure to what she called “an adult culture of negativity,” one in which she “felt bullied every single day.”  She was told, too, “by multiple people [at KIPP], ‘I'm so sorry, but you don't have any of the skills that it takes to be successful here in terms of management.’ It was just constant negativity.”  At one point, a grade level fellow teacher told her, “you're the weakest link, but you're not the weakest link of the school, so at least appreciate that.”
         In what she described as a poisonous and unprofessional environment, group messages flew back and forth with cutting remarks, jibes, and bad-mouthing of school leaders, other teachers, and students, as well:
I have saved text messages of them complaining about the fact that our principal can never show up to school on time. I have saved text messages about teachers actually making fun of students and their disabilities. . . a child who has special ed needs. He was caught playing with himself a couple times in school. They started making fun of him via a group message about the fact that ‘finally we taught this child how to use his right brain and his left brain at the same time.’  And some absolutely horrific things about that child. Things that should never be spoken at any school anywhere.
         Having heard some KIPP teachers make negative comments about other teachers and school leaders when they were not present, she began to wonder if these same teachers were talking about her.  She found herself walking unannounced into group meetings that would go suddenly silent, where “you know people are complaining about you.”  She had suspicions that students had overheard remarks about her from teachers.   She said she felt like she and the kids were “surrounded by a culture of negativity day in and day out” that served as a vitriolic variety of behavioral hazing. 
         She quickly worked into a schedule that had her arriving at school at 5:45 to make copies and to get her board and other materials ready before the 7:10 start.  Like many KIPP teachers, she usually worked through lunch, and she had her first break at 2:45. Although a plan period was in her daily schedule, meetings and other commitments consumed that time except for one day of the week, so that she was left with 80 minutes during the week, as she said, “to myself.”  She insisted on leaving school just after 6 PM, even though school leaders “chastised” her and said, “you would have better relationships with the people you work with if you stayed here past 6 PM.” 
         Having never been seriously ill or hospitalized, her family was alarmed when she was hospitalized early in the Fall with a “bleeding cyst in [her] reproductive system.” She was prescribed morphine and kept in the hospital for three days.  Her mother, who suspected work stress as a major factor, flew in to be with her and to take her home, and doctors ordered more pain medication and three more days of bed rest.  As with most other KIPP schools, substitute teachers were not part of the culture, and her biggest worry during her recovery was the other teachers who were having to cover for her:
. . . the doctor told me I couldn't be at work while I was on morphine because it would just be a disservice to the whole world. I couldn't drive a car. God knows I shouldn't have been in front of children . . . . I did come back. I [still] had a little bit of pain, but more I had so much anxiety about screwing these other teachers over because of my own illness that caused even more stress.
She came back to work for several more weeks before resigning prior to
 Thanksgiving, when she became the sixth out of 10 newly hired teachers to leave that KIPP school before mid-term.  Two of those were new teachers, and four had prior experience.      
         Before she resigned, other teachers were falling ill, too.  Two colleagues on different occasions required treatment at an emergency clinic, where both were prescribed anti-anxiety medication and anti-depressants.  Two weeks before she resigned, another teacher was treated for hives that covered most of her body. The weight of the negative pressure was taking a toll. When I asked the purpose of all the negativity, she replied without hesitation, “I think it's to get every teacher working at that school to give every single thing they have until they can't give anymore.” 
A bit later in the interview, she said, “I don't think that that's what the [KIPP] administrators want. But I think that they're so focused on these test scores that they don't see teacher satisfaction. They don't see the benefit of long-term teacher relationships or the benefit of maybe seeing a student struggle and realize that there's more to a child than hitting a certain number on their math test. They just haven't figured it out yet.”
         A few days after leaving KIPP and returning to public school teaching, this teacher found herself in a psychological space that she had forgotten during her four months at KIPP.  The day of our interview she had called her boyfriend to chat, and it occurred to her to ask him, “Is there something different in my voice?”  He reminded her that she sounded “really happy” again.  She said that during her time at KIPP a “dark cloud was cast” on her and that she “had become a shell” of the confident teacher she had been prior to coming to KIPP: “They successfully stomped out any type of confidence or this feeling I had about my abilities—and made me feel like this person who was just failing students every day.”
         In reflecting on positive aspects at KIPP, she found the focus on professional development for “making the teacher look more effective” commendable, but she noted “you can’t get a teacher to be more effective if she feels unhappy at work every day.”  She estimated that fewer than one in five KIPP teachers at her school appeared to be happy.  She said that those who realize working conditions are unfair, quit, and she described the teachers who remain at KIPP as “impressively resilient but also very passive.”
She said they are the ones “who will just take hit after hit after hit,” and she described one “beautiful young woman” who came to KIPP as a new teacher without knowing that teaching in other schools can be very different from KIPP: “It's really hard for me to see her because . . . she's actually been physically assaulted by students, but they don't want to suspend students because it makes the school look bad.”
Finally, this KIPP teacher agreed with KIPP’s focus on trying to motivate children for college, even though she found their approach “a little bit. . . overbearing.”  She noted, too, the countervailing influences that work to neutralize KIPP’s stated goals.  On the one hand, KIPP optimistically hastens children toward college, yet on (or with) the other hand, students are gripped in a negative behavioral vice that detracts from learning how to become autonomous and thinking young adults: 
When we talk about KIPP and its limitations on getting kids to college, it makes sense…[and yet] we taught at this middle school how to have kids walk in a straight line and how to open a textbook and rewrite a problem silently with the proper notation. We're not teaching them how to be young free-thinking independent adults. I think that's really a disservice that's happening at those schools.
Lemov, D.  (2010).  Teach like a champion:  49 techniques that put students on the path to college (K-12).  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Miron, G., Urshel, J., & Saxton, N.  (2011).  What makes KIPP work: Study of student characteristics, attrition, and school finance.  New York: National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.  Retrieved from http://www.ncspe.org/readrel.php?set=pub&cat=253
Weber, M., & Rubin, J.  (2014).  New Jersey charter schools: A data-driven view, part 1.  Rutgers Graduate School of Education.  Retrieved from http://www.saveourschoolsnj.org/save/corefiles/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NJ-Charter-School-Report_10.29.2014.pdf