A couple of months ago, I wrote about the challenge of teaching corroboration in the age of information overload. In that post, I described the 21st century citizen’s challenge of wading through pages upon pages of conflicting information, and especially of not succumbing to confirmation bias as a result.

In an attempt to improve my own personal “information management,” I recently read David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. (I’m not going to write a full review here, but if you ever feel like you’re drowning in e-mails, paperwork, to do lists, etc., and you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it.) In the book, Allen describes the problem we face nearly perfectly:

The necessity of dealing with frequent and complex barrages of potentially significant data was probably true in the past for remarkable individuals such as Napoleon as he marched through Europe, or Bach as he composed, or even Andy Warhol as he decided what to paint or show in a gallery. Now, though, the entire world’s digitally connected literate population is the recipient of an explosion of nonstop, potentially “important”—or at least relevant—information. The ease with which it can be accessed through technology has made it simultaneously rewarding in its opportunities and and treacherous in its volume, speed, and changeability. If you are by nature fascinated by what may be going on when you hear sirens in your neighborhood or wonder what a group of people across the room at a party is excitedly talking about, then you are ripe for becoming a victim of the endless and powerful distractions your personal technology dishes out to you. (Loc 195)

This makes me wonder: Is there such a thing as being “too curious”? In our schools, we often extol curiosity as a core value, but is there a downside? Especially given our (relatively) newfound ability to pursue any topic that crosses our path, is it possible that our curiosity leads us to be, as my grandfather might say, “a mile wide and an inch deep”?

(For what it’s worth, this is also reminiscent of my January 2015 post, “You Can’t Do It All.”)

It’s been a busy month for me, and I’ve started to develop a backlog of potential posts. Here’s an idea from almost a month ago (!):

On my way into school, I heard this piece on NPR: “Racial Bias Isn’t Just a Police Problem, It’s a Preschool Problem”. With a wife who teaches pre-school in a school that is roughly 98% African American, I was immediately intrigued. The focus of the piece, it turns out, was a study on implicit bias done by the Yale Child Study Center. The findings? That teachers are often implicitly biased in their classroom discipline.

This kind of work is important in helping to bring broader exposure to the problem of implicit bias, something all teachers (all people) need to be made aware of. Until we begin to recognize our implicit biases–thus making them explicit–we can’t work to counteract them. And yet, this story actually obscures a different implicit bias–one which the study seems to suggest might be more substantial than racial bias.

Here’s the gist of the study, and the kernel of the findings:

At a big, annual conference for pre-K teachers, Gilliam and his team recruited 135 educators to watch a few short videos. Here’s what they told them:

We are interested in learning about how teachers detect challenging
behavior in the classroom. Sometimes this involves seeing behavior before it becomes problematic. The video segments you are about to view are of preschoolers engaging in various activities. Some clips may or may not contain challenging behaviors. Your job is to press the enter key on the external keypad every time you see a behavior that could become a potential challenge.

Each video included four children: a black boy and girl and a white boy and girl.

Here’s the deception: There was no challenging behavior.

While the teachers watched, eye-scan technology measured the trajectory of their gaze. Gilliam wanted to know: When teachers expected bad behavior, who did they watch?

“What we found was exactly what we expected based on the rates at which children are expelled from preschool programs,” Gilliam says. “Teachers looked more at the black children than the white children, and they looked specifically more at the African-American boy.”

Indeed, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, black children are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended from preschool than white children. Put another way, black children account for roughly 19 percent of all preschoolers, but nearly half of preschoolers who get suspended.

One reason that number is so high, Gilliam suggests, is that teachers spend more time focused on their black students, expecting bad behavior. “If you look for something in one place, that’s the only place you can typically find it.”

However, the next line of the article piece is the one that really got me thinking: “The Yale team also asked subjects to identify the child they felt required the most attention. Forty-two percent identified the black boy, 34 percent identified the white boy, while 13 percent and 10 percent identified the white and black girls respectively.”

This would appear to be in keeping with the title of the piece, and it fits nicely into the current debate over systemic and institutional bias in other areas of American life, such as criminal justice. If we look a bit more closely, though, we notice that black girls may actually receive less scrutiny than white girls. And girls in general appear to receive about one-third of the scrutiny that boys do. In fact, seventy-six percent of participants said that boys (regardless of race) required more attention to keep them in line, while only 23% said that girls did.

To me, this suggests more of a gender bias than a racial one.  I know that, thoughout my career, I have tended to see more “troublesome behavior” in boys, and I suspect that girls get away with more in class than boys do. This brings to mind the “boy crisis”–a hotly debated concept in education, but one which I think has at least some merit (even if the name itself is a bit melodramatic). I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it a crisis, but I do think there is something to the idea. Why is it that boys are prescribed ADHD medications at rates far outstripping girls? Why is it that boys are suspended from school more often? Why is it that more boys are identified as “special needs” students? These things can’t all be accidents. Perhaps some of it stems from this implicit bias–the same one that the author of this piece seems to miss altogether.

To be sure, racially discriminatory discipline practices are real and problematic; they need to be exposed and addressed. I am by no means disputing that. But I think that this story actually obscures another problem that is potentially bigger (at least in terms of sheer numbers). As educators, we must work to ameliorate conditions which disadvantage black boys, absolutely, but as we do so, let’s not forget that most boys find school to be a challenge at some point. Are there changes we can make that would serve them all?

After the latest revelation about Donald Trump, it seems strange to write about anything else related to the presidential campaign, but I’ve been thinking about this for several days, so here it is.

In the wake of last week’s Vice Presidential debate, I read this article from the Washington Post:

Clinton debate prep is focused on what happens once the debate is done

It discusses this ad from the Clinton campaign, which was released mere hours after the debate ended.

Clearly, this informed Kaine’s debate strategy, as he repeatedly (and often awkwardly) said some variation of “I can’t believe Governor Pence is going to defend Donald Trump on this issue.” I suspect the ad was all but ready to go, pending only the video from Mike Pence, who played into their trap nearly perfectly.

I’m not here to talk about politics, though, except in the sense that I wonder if this sort of ad–while clearly effective for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the short run–is good for our nation’s civic health in the long run. Again, I’m not debating whether these statements by Trump and Pence are “fair game”; they certainly are.

But by using the debate as a venue for producing “gotcha advertising” (similar to “gotcha journalism”), is Clinton’s seeming innovation making it less likely that candidates, who are often reluctant to take the stage to begin with, will debate in the future?

We could argue about whether debates actually serve any real purpose, as they often devolve into little more than constant sniping and bickering, neither of which is good for our civic health either. But they do represent–at least in theory–one of the few times when the candidates appear together and at least attempt to talk about real differences of philosophy and policy. In that sense, I would argue that they are important and meaningful, imperfect though they are.

Of course, this could turn out to have just the opposite effect. Going forward, both parties will adopt this tactic, and candidates will know that they have to be prepared to defend previous statements with more than just a flat denial, lest they be made to look foolish. As Glenn Beck pointed out, “We’re not living in the 1800s. We can go back to the clips on YouTube.” Yes–sources matter!

We can’t predict the future, of course, but thinking historically, I wonder what the long-term (possibly unintended) consequences of this will be.

I recently came across Genius, a web annotation tool. The site proclaims itself the “world’s biggest collection of song lyrics and crowdsourced musical knowledge,” but it has the potential to be much more than that. I encountered it in this piece about an interview with Donald Trump’s campaign manager and thought it looked interesting. When I came across the article below today, it seemed like a good candidate for trying it out myself. If you click the link, you should be able to see my annotations (along with any contributed by other Genius users, I suppose):

Zak Slayback, Parents Have Been Demoted to Deputy School Teachers

Aside from my thoughts about Slayback’s article (which I won’t go into here–I’ll let the annotations speak for themselves), this does seem like a potential useful tool for students. It melds annotation features (admittedly somewhat basic) with some features of social media, which might appeal to students. It could also envision using this to have students annotate an article alongside each other outside of class, potentially very useful for current events discussion.

My new school has a regular “Talking About Teaching” professional development opportunity for teachers. Essentially, it’s a scheduled time for teachers to come and share thoughts and ideas about the craft of teaching. It’s one thing that drew me to the school. Today’s topic was “Student Motivation”—a topic I’ve thought a lot about.

The conversation was wide-ranging, but it left me thinking for much of the day about the interconnection of two topics that form the title of this post: intrinsic motivation and the relevance of history. We talked a lot about the role of grades and other extrinsic motivators in school, though there seemed to be general agreement that we’d like for our students to be more intrinsically motivated to learn—to play with ideas, to inquire and explore their interests.

I pointed out that, as Daniel Pink notes in his book Drive, we all tend to be more intrinsically motivated when we a) have some measure of autonomy in the task at hand; b) can observe ourselves progressing toward mastery of it; and c) appreciate its larger purpose. Unfortunately, the infrastructure of schools often serves to undermine autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

At this point, a colleague raised the concern that few students—and even some teachers—don’t necessarily understand the purpose of their studies in school. Why, for instance, do students need to know a particular equation in math class? Or (to reference one of my own lessons from today) why do they need to know the significance of itinerant preachers in the Great Awakening?

We batted that idea around for a while, and there were a variety of ideas. In the end, though, we seemed to reach a general consensus: at the end of the day, students probably don’t need to know all of those things. Many agreed that much of the “stuff” that we teach in our courses is not absolutely essential for students to learn. (This brought to mind my recent post on “The Siren Call of Coverage.”)

This has me reflecting on curriculum. Once we acknowledge that the sky would not fall if some things were cut, then paring back the content of the curriculum would seem to be a logical step toward remedying any perceived deficiencies. In our case, if we find that our students suffer from a lack of intrinsic motivation and don’t see the purpose of what they’re studying, we need to address that. Trimming the content covered would kill two birds with one stone:

  1. It would provide time for self-directed learning, in which students—under the supervision of teachers, to be sure—could pursue topics of interest to them, hopefully learning to ask questions, pursue their interests, and discover meaning for themselves. Even in a field that is not necessarily a student’s true passion, he or she may find a particular topic or question that is intriguing, perhaps sparking a lifelong hobby.
  2. By covering less material, teachers would have the opportunity to pursue deeper learning, which would helpfully hope students understand the value of their studies. For my part, I want my students to consider why history matters today—how historical narratives (even historically inaccurate ones) shape our contemporary worldview and how historical thinking skills can help us make sense of the time in which we live. When I feel pressure to get to chapter 15 by Christmas, though, that’s difficult to do.

It is admittedly something of a cliche, but I have nevertheless long appreciated Yeats’s famous adage that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Particularly in history, if the approach is just “one damn thing after another,” only the rare student will have their “fire” stoked. (We history teachers all know these kids—the ones who geek out over trivia while the other students slump in their seats and roll their eyes.) In the traditional coverage approach, everyone’s pails get filled… but most are unceremoniously dumped out later, after the extrinsic motivation (the test) is removed. Whatever small fires we managed to start along the way, most are extinguished in the deluge.

On my drive to and from school each day, I typically listen to NPR. My commute is only about 10-15 minutes, even with traffic, so I generally only hear a handful of stories. Even so, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard a number of stories about the recent decision by ITT Technical Institute, a for profit college, to shut down virtually overnight.

If you’re not familiar with the situation, the U.S. Department of Education announced in August that ITT Tech wold not be permitted to enroll students who use federal financial aid. This came after a number of investigations which alleged fraud and a number of other questionable business practices.

As I was driving in this morning, I heard this story, produced by our local NPR affiliate (WUSF). The gist is that ITT students—some of whom were only months from graduation—are basically left high and dry, and they now face a difficult decision: They can transfer some (though likely not all) of their credits to another institution and continue holding their debt in full, or they can discharge most (though likely not all) of their debt and start over from scratch at another institution. It’s a lose-lose situation.

The story quotes an ITT administrator in Fort Lauderdale as saying, “If I had a magic wand, I would have said, ‘If you’re closing, you teach them out, [show] that there’s a plan in place to teach out anyone who’s currently enrolled and that you don’t just shut the doors, you don’t just do that to people.”

To me, this story gets at the heart of my concerns about for-profit education ventures. I’ll be the first to admit that I am no expert on this issue, and I’m sure there are some valid arguments in favor of for-profit education. Still, I believe that educational institutions (even private, for-profit ones) have a fiduciary responsibility* to their students—a responsibility to act in their students’ interest that goes beyond their obvious responsibility to provide a quality educational experience. Unfortunately, in a for-profit school (or college, in this case), the motives and responsibilities become blurry.

Is the institution’s motive to education—or to make a profit, come what may? Is its responsibility to its students—or to its shareholders/stakeholders?  Of course, those don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but when push comes to shove, which will it be? We now know the answer for ITT Tech.

* I am not a lawyer and thus don’t use this term in a strictly legal sense. Rather, I use to suggest that institutions (or, more precisely, the administrators who guide those institutions) must consider students’ interests when making decisions about the company. They must honor the trust that students place in them when they enroll.

This post has been brewing for a while now, since the heady days of summer when I was free to spend my time reading to my heart’s content: books, magazines, blog posts, random news articles, the newspaper… you name it. And while I was doing all of that reading and thinking, something occurred to me. It’s not a particularly original thought, but rather one of those simple ideas that hits you square between the eyes.

As I read article after article about the 2016 presidential campaign, I reflected on the fact that my professional raison d’etre—like many history teachers—centers on preparing my students for active and engaged citizenship. I would love for just one of my students to pursue a career as a historian (or history teacher), but I know that most of them won’t. All of them, however, will become citizens.

To that end, I try to teach them how to think historically—which is to say, how to think critically about social issues, mindful of matters like context, causation, change, complexity, and contingency. I also try to think them how to read sources—whether 400 year old primary sources or contemporary op-eds—with an eye for bias and to corroborate the information they gather.

As I found myself drowning in reading material this summer, though, it occurred to me how difficult it is to corroborate in this age of information overload. Once we teach students how to corroborate—and why it is so important—we set them loose into a world with an overwhelming surfeit of information. Moreover, our “sources” are simultaneously proliferating and becoming ideologically fixed (or, at the very least, they are coming to be labeled as such by parties which disagree with their conclusions).

This leaves us more open than ever to the problem of confirmation bias. Worse, we may even fool ourselves into thinking we have corroborated our information by locating it in several different sources. This is a serious problem in the age of information.

Sam Wineburg

As I ruminated about this and contemplated this post, I came across this article from Sam Wineburg of the Stanford History Education Group. (It is actually an excerpt from his keynote before the American Association for State and Local History last year.) As with just about everything Wineburg writes, it should be required reading for history teachers. Here are a few key quotations from the piece, along with my brief thoughts about each one:

It was obviously never the case that just because something was printed meant that it was true. At the same time, we often ceded authority to established publishers. We relied on them to make sure that what we read was accurate, that it had gone through rounds of criticism before it reached our eyes. . . . The Internet has obliterated authority. . . . We live in an age when you can practice historiography without a license.

I suspect Wineburg is playing to his audience here, but I love this notion of practicing historiography “without a license.” His point, of course, is about the decline of authority in the internet age, but in fact, Wineburg’s scholarship seeks just this outcome. If he had his way, all students would become adept at thinking like historians, which would make a “license” (by which I assume he means a formal credential) even less relevant.

The first thing that historical study teaches is that there is no such thing as free-floating information. Information comes from somewhere.

A simple but often overlooked point. Wineburg has a knack for the pithy phrase, and if we had to sum up the value of a history education in ten words or less (an absurd idea, of course), this last sentence would put us on the right path.

[We] are living in an age where technological changes of how information is disseminated and distributed far outpaces our ability to keep up with it. The tools we have invented are handling us—not us them.

Echoes of Thoreau here. We’ve built systems for developing content and making it readily available to the masses, but without tools for critically assessing that content, we risk losing sight of the idea that “Information comes from somewhere.”

As the journalist John H. McManus reminds us, in a democracy the ill-informed hold just as much power in the ballot box as the well-informed. The future of the republic hangs in the balance. Reliable information is to civic intelligence what clean air and clean water are to public health.

It may be semantic, but I would challenge Wineburg to go farther here. I would change “reliable information” to “an engaged and critical citizenry,” and where he writes of “civic intelligence,” I would use “civic health.” After all, the goal here goes far beyond simply “intelligence,” and as Wineburg himself makes clear, that doesn’t depend on reliable information so much as on citizens’ ability to assess the information they encounter.

The fact of the matter is that Wineburg advocates for serious reform of the way history is taught in this country, much in the same way that Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring) and others called for environmental reforms. To hope for “reliable information” is naive—akin to Rachel Carson asking pollution to clean itself up. Instead, what we need are mechanisms for dealing with all the information out there. Just as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act paid dividends for public health, teaching students how to navigate the rising tide of information will improve civic health.