Category Archives: Commentary

Pedagogical Conservatism as an Artifact of Institutionalization

I’m of the fervent conviction that the greatest peril facing American public education today is pedagogical conservatism, and that conservatism is fostered directly by the tradition of the school institution.

My classroom practices as well as my administrative philosophy are rooted deeply in metapedagogy, as it is with any radical pedagogue. We say that wildness is a desirable characteristic of the learner, and that we must disenthrall ourselves from the formalized, paternal (often patriarchal) niceness and cleanliness of traditional institutionalized schooling. The aware (read: “woke”) reader will recognize that there is nothing nice or clean about the intellectual abbatoir of the modern school, and that it is not only ourselves that we must free but our children, both actively for those already caught in the grinder and proactively for those not yet quashed in their humanity by the autocratic nature of the traditional classroom.

The contemporary school is modeled upon three major social institutions: the prison, the factory, and the church. Destroying these edifices that are imposed like coffer dams around learning is essential to liberating the child mind and, therefore, learning writ large. They are mutually-incompatible with genuine learning, with pedagogy, and with children. The murder of the genuine child is more than a result of but a direct goal of the system.

This may seem a damning indictment, but one need only BEGIN to question the most basic structures of the institution to recognize their fallacy.

Why do we start school in September and end in late June? Why do we begin the school day at 7:30 AM? Why do we use ABCDF grading? Why do we name Valedictorians? Why do aspiring politicians often run for School Board first? Why do we block YouTube? Why do Scantrons exist? Who is Pearson?

If you take any meaningful time at all to truly explore these questions, you will immediately place your hand upon one of the aforementioned coffer dams of institutionalized factory-prison-church schooling, like so much reaching the edge of the holodeck on the starship Enterprise and realizing that the fantasy is false and there’s a powerful illusory machine right in front of us for the touching and, if we choose, the deactivating.

I discuss this issue in my first book on education, Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children.

Value Addled: Lousy Teacher Evaluation Loses Big at Trial

Experienced and highly successful educator Sheri Lederman has prevailed at trial in her suit against the New York State Department of Education, with the presiding judge slamming the system in his remarks. The so-called “Value Added Model” (or “VAM”) is a model championed by John King, now the successor to Arne Duncan as the head of the U.S. Department of Education.

This is a victory for great teachers everywhere – especially in harassed New York, where I first taught – and a setback for the corporatizers and faux-reformers who tout convoluted systems that empower the standardized testing commercial complex instead of focusing on what matters.

Proper teacher evaluation is hard, but it’s not solved by implementing a convoluted mathematical formula. That doesn’t solve anything in and of itself. Mathematics is a phenomenal tool for understanding the world, and I’m not saying a mathematician couldn’t create a meaningful formula, but teacher evaluation, at its heart – as with anything involving teaching and learning – is a craft that requires significant observation and human interaction that is better left to better methods.

Observation, interaction, and narrative are powerful analytical tools, and they seem utterly left behind by most models. You simply CANNOT evaluate a teacher based on standardized test scores. NOT AT ALL. Not a little. Not ever. NOT AT ALL. It is a fallacious standard because the data itself is fallacious: A single integer numeric value does not tell you about a child’s skill mastery, and cannot, therefore, be reliably used for ANY educational decision. This is what the USDOE and every administration in my teaching career – Bush II and Obama, both – have absolutely and totally failed to understand.

Teacher evaluation requires significant analysis of observational, qualitative, and in some cases nonquantifiable data sets, and that means better quality pedagogy, better quality administrative professional development, and ensuring principals and assistant principals are instructional experts first and foremost, then equipping them with the time and resources to spend the vast majority of their times amid the teaching for which they are responsible.

You can’t do that sitting behind your desk on your butt, folks, and that’s where USDOE policies keep pushing people because the standardized testing commercial complex is about production, numbers, and charts, not about teaching, learning, performance, authenticity, and individualized creation and application.

My Feminism is Our Feminism

Yorktown Sentry Staff reporter Kyle Mayo-Blake authored an op ed in February 2016, asking the rhetorical question, “Can men be feminists?


I realize that simple one-word answers aren’t the rage in the presidential election season – as was exemplified last night at the Democratic debate in which “yes” and “no” seemed to be the only words unused in some of the more sprawling answers – but  it’s self-evident that men can be feminists. I think the more pressing question is why aren’t more men feminists? In reading the extraordinary work “Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer  Movements More Inclusive” by Julia Serrano, I was challenged more than ever to recognize that  all oppression must be challenged, and excluding those who seek to fight institutional and structural violence must not be discounted, but included, in their efforts to do so. Indeed, I fear that those who say “no, one cannot be a fighter of oppression on behalf of a targeted class” (I use “class” here in the legal meaning) “unless one is a member of said class” are ostracizing allies and compromising their own pursuits.

For example, many of the key leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in America were also key leaders of the abolitionist cause. It is not entirely inaccurate to say that the tree of women’s rights has its roots in fighting racism. So, too, can one see the roots of the LGBTQI+ crusade for equality in many feminist causes. Consequently, as a person charged with protecting and empowering every individual child, regardless of where they fall on the continuua of traits and characteristics, including gender and ethnicity, I feel a deep “need” to actively oppose structural violence in all its forms.

We teachers have a moral obligation, an ethical imperative, and a professional responsibility to perceive, respect, and love every child. It is our prime directive: Children and their learning come first, in all things, now and forever, without exception.

Consequently, I believe I have a responsibility to be a feminist.

At the most altruistic level, I believe that all human beings are, indeed, entitled to dignity, respect, identity, safety, and the meeting of their human needs.

For me, as a fierce advocate for gender equality, I can’t help but raise gender as an issue to begin with: Gender is not a binary condition, nor has it ever been in the entire history of our species, which spans up to 200,000 years, depending on where you want to make the distinction. (As the dear, late Christopher Hitchens put it, “give or take.”)  The commonly-touted statistic for genitally-atypical gender births is roughly 1 in every 2000 people. Put over-simply, if you have a school district of 20,000 kids, you could expect 10 of those children to have an anatomy that would not conform to the (also-oversimplified) idea of binary gender. However, the Intersex Society of North America rightly points out that it’s more like 1 in 100 people who do not, in one form or another, fit into binary gender definitions. So when it comes to discrimination on the basis of gender, I cannot help but object to binary gender as a starting point.

However, it takes the merest glancing at the history of our species to know that the feminine, and specifically women, have been systematically mistreated for nearly the entirety of that history. This, to me, is also self-evident: Women have historically been denied rights by men strictly on the basis of their gender, perceived or otherwise.  While I, as a cisgender male, may not personally mistreat women, I do feel a responsibility to be aware of the historic structural violence my gender “class” has perpetrated against women, and to be keenly aware of the small-scale transgressions of which I might be inadvertently guilty because of the socializing aspect of growing up male. In that respect, I do indeed think of myself as a “feminist.”

At the most personal level, to drill down  as far as I can, I want to support others having the same rights I believe I should have. Being queer gives a person additional experiential insight into being denied rights, and that compels me, personally, to fight for others’. I’m aware (because of the thoughts outlined in the previous paragraph) that I have a form of privilege as a male in a patriarchal society, and that I have a responsibility not to participate in the oppression and structural, institutional violence of that patriarchy. I go so far as to say I have a responsibility to oppose the patriarchy, because 1. there is no such thing as binary gender which ruins the whole “I Am Man” phenomenon as the lie that it is, 2. no human should be empowered over another on the basis of gender, and 3. there is a practical impact of misogynism that harms me, the people around me, and the entirety of my species.

In January of 2016, I Tweeted “Every thinking person has a moral responsibility to be a #feminist.” One of the responses indicated that feminism was unnecessary. (Imagine my eye-roll at a cisgender male making such a statement.) Unnecessary?

How blithe must a person be as to think the way things are today are “just fine?” How obtuse must a person be to think that there is no need to counter institutionalized, societal harm done to classes of people strictly on the basis of being a member of that class? What’s the alternative? Accept it?

I refuse. I refuse to accept the patriarchy, or any other institution, tacit or explicit, that gives one group of humans the power to control another group of humans. I consider it anti-freedom, inhumane, and deeply inconsistent with our natural state of humanity.

Until such time as a group of humans who have suffered historic discrimination, objectification, violence (structural, institutional, political, physical, mental, emotional), and oppression because they are members of that group, have been empowered out of being so mistreated, we all have a common human interest in working to make things better. We also have a personal  ethical imperative not to participate in those activities and to fight them when we see them.

So yes, not only can men be feminists, but we have a responsibility to be. Now, I recognize the perspective of those (and there are many) who say that men cannot remove themselves from privilege in the patriarchy, and therefore cannot be feminists, but at best allies of a pro-feminist, anti-sexist nature. I accept this, and just as I believe my queerness and my identity is mine to define, so a woman’s womanness and feminism is hers to define, and I would not dare correct a woman who said, “You cannot be a feminist.” If those feminists choose to label me, for these entirely righteous and valid reasons, as a pro-feminist ally if not a feminist, I accept the nomenclature and distinction as a member of the aforementioned privileged class. (No matter how much I may choose to eschew that privilege and steadfastly refuse to participate in patriarchal structural violence.)

However, for purposes of making it clear, I say “I am a feminist” in this context today because wherever there is feminism, I am an ally and a fellow fighter, and I cannot conceive a valid reason why I should not  be so. I have a professional responsibility, as well as a moral obligation and ethical imperative, to fight for the causes of women in every way I can, just as I have a responsibility to fight for the cause of any oppressed class.

As Christopher Hitchens said in 2010, with his usual cheek, “We all know there is a cure for poverty. It’s a rudimentary one; it works everywhere, though. It works everywhere for the same reason. It’s colloquially called the empowerment of women. It’s the only thing that does work. If you allow women some control over their cycle of reproduction, so that they’re not chained by their husbands or by village custom to annual animal-type  pregnancies, early death, disease, and so on… if you would free them from that, give them some basic health of that sort, and if you are generous enough to throw in a handful of seeds and a bit of credit, the whole floor – culturally, socially, medically, economically – of that village will rise.”

Regardless of the nomenclature, we have a deep responsibility, as men, to fight to right the wrongs we, as a class, have wrought upon women and the feminine throughout the history of our species. I call that feminism, even if you don’t, but however you term it, men must active empower women and the feminine in both theory and in praxis.

Patriarchy, as with all forms of oppressive control and coercion, is destructive to women specifically, and to our species as a whole.

No Lecturing = No Duh

It is as if college educators have woken up and smelled the proverbial coffee.

Yesterday, NPR aired a piece in which  acclaimed Stanford physics professor Carl Wieman beseeches colleges and universities to abandon lectures in favor of “active learning.” I suppose it’s good that people are coming to this realization, but I couldn’t help but remark “no kidding” to myself over and over again as I listened to the piece. We pedagogues know what does and doesn’t work, and lecture has never been an effective form of teaching. I propose in my first book, Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children, that lecturing is not a form of teaching at all, but a distinct activity that may have value, but that lacks the fundamental principles of actual teaching.

Lecturing is an activity in which a person presents information to a group, often a large group, and the group gets what they get out of it. The onus is on the listener to “get it,” and the lecturer really has no responsibility whatsoever to the individuals to whom xe lectures.

Teaching, by stark contrast, places the responsibility for ensuring each and every learner has, in fact, learned, squarely on the shoulders of the teacher. As a teacher, it is my responsibility to utilize appropriate formative and omnimodal assessment mechanisms to ascertain the skill master of my learners, and to create all of the conditions and scaffold all of the experiences necessary for each individual to learn. Without genuine learning, one is not genuinely teaching.

In lecturing, it doesn’t matter if anybody “gets it” or not. The lecturer, like a cannon, fires off the shot, and that’s that. This is, of course, no guarantee whatsoever that anybody is actually learning. Many students in such situations are actually being abandoned to autodidacticism, rather than being meaningfully taught. That is why, much to the chagrin of some of my professorial colleagues, I have long maintained that college professors are not necessarily teachers.

I hear someone say, “I teach at George Mason  University,” and I often correct them by saying, “you are a professor at George Mason University.” There is no guarantee that you are teaching if you are a professor, and to the contrary, it is more than likely, knowing what we know about the way many college courses are fashioned, that you are a lecturer or a presenter, not a teacher insofar as we radical pedagogues would demand you to be.

Teaching is a demanding craft that takes intensive study. How many professors do you know who have meaningfully studied that craft, in addition to their disciplines? I wager you know few.

Until such time as pedagogy is given the appropriate priority any time learning is desired or expected, I’d wager we’ll continue to see warehouse-sized lecture halls full of frantic note-taking. I’m really pleased to see Professor Wieman and his colleagues taking this so seriously, and can only hope that more institutions will follow suit in short order.

Ready, Fire, Aim: Missing the Mark in Teaching by Failing to Aim at Learning

I had a stellar conversation with my brilliant former student Cassy Bailey the other day. She’s a computer science major at George Mason University, having initially thought she’d go into political science or something like it. Having arrived at CS via a path that differs from some of her classmates, she has, unsurprisingly, a unique perspective. She told me about a fantastic analogy she learned from Professor Eric S. Mailman  at Delaware Tech. Professor Mailman said that too often in computer science, aspiring programmers and engineers will jump into application to solve the problem with relative immediacy. They’ll roll up their sleeves and “get to work,” slapping together gates and wires or hammering out code, and experimenting and testing and admittedly experiencing what I’ve termed “fruitful failure,” yielding ineffective or incorrect results that do teach you something, and move you in the right direction. I’ve spoken of the importance of failure before. However, Cassy rightly pointed out that the inefficiency and potential hazards and loss of this approach can be significant. Since we were talking economically and politically at the time, unsurprisingly she pointed out that there is a serious inefficiency in terms of materials and man-hours in this approach.

What Professor Mailman termed “Ready, Fire, Aim” is a problematic approach, and certainly the “Ready, Aim, Fire” sequence prioritizes planning and strategy prior to leaping into application.

Cassy told me that recently in a three hour lab, many of her classmates had leapt into building the necessary circuit and testing it (and getting failure after failure) within fifteen minutes of starting said lab. Not being a “production-minded” person, but a success-oriented individual (she had good teachers, he muttered with a grin, not actually taking any credit) she sat back and thought about it. She realized that the problem in front of her was a matter of boolean algebra, which she’d learned from my former colleague Amy Macaleer at Battlefield High School. While it took more like 50 minutes for Cassy to work out the strategy and plan, she then immediately and successfully constructed an accurate, functional, elegant, and efficient solution, and was done in an hour, leaving the rest of her classmates slapping away at breadboards and gates and wires, none the more successful.

A Gary Larson-illustrated panel from “The Far Side,” used by Professor Mailman in his courses to illustrate the need for design and planning prior to execution.

My colleague Don Bierschbach served in the 82nd Airborne prior to becoming a social studies and economics teacher, and he also completed a Master’s in Educational Technology, so we talk quite a bit. I asked him, as a person with significant and scary-as-hell-to-me combat and forward operations experience, how much time is spent in design and planning prior to the movie-action-hero type “GO GO GO!” He indicated that while it varies – certainly Special Operations folks are trained for think-as-you-go situations – many operations can be months in the making. The “Ready, Aim, Fire” operational sequence makes sense in the actual ready-aim-fire scenario, too.

Unsurprisingly,  my mind turns to pedagogy.

You have to take the time to prepare in advance when you teach. You have to know your pedagogy. You have to understand your craft, and you have to understand your individual learners, as best as you can, using every mechanism and mean and method at your disposal, so that you can eliminate variables, thoughtfully strategize, implement specific and thoughtful tactics, and meet the needs of every kid, to yield the only result that matters: every individual kid’s learning needs met, and every single individual kid achieving skill mastery. That can’t happen on the fly, hacked together with spit and bailing wire on a wing and a prayer. That just doesn’t work. I’m an experienced classroom teacher.

Been there. Tried it. Nope!

The failure to thoughtfully design learning experiences that account for every single child’s learning is the hallmark of teacher-centered practice, and is exemplary of a “Ready, Fire, Aim” approach that says “I’ll try this, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll try something else.” This pedagogy is the essence of why remediation is the dominant element of assessment and instruction: We try, we expect significant failure, and we then address that failure. (All while labeling it a student-learning failure instead of a teacher-teaching failure, which it very much is as I explain ad nauseam in my book.)

Why not design to avoid the teaching failure in the first place?

I’ve been saying for about seven  years now that “the era of the interactive whiteboard is behind us.” I often refer to the single-point touch-surface “everyone look this way and pay attention to what I’m doing” pedagogy that so-called “smartboards” trend toward as indicators of a teacher-centered situation, but that may not be so. While there are absolutely people who are meaningfully using interactive touch-based surfaces in child-centered ways, there are also teachers who aren’t using those things at all that are still primarily teacher-centered, and failing to meaningfully design learning experiences that account for all students.

When I say “account for all students,” I mean each individual student’s thinking modality, learning style, cognitive and neuropsychological needs, social and emotional needs, and other specific attributes that may be relevant in that kid’s learning. This is one of the chief reasons I distinguish in the early chapters of  “Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children” between lecturing, facilitating, training, and teaching.

Those are not the same thing.

Lecturing is not a form of teaching. It is a distinct phenomenon, and can be done with very little if any design. Lecturing may have a place in certain situations at certain times in schools, but by and large I consider lecture to be a way to deliver information without meaningful teaching design. To speak at length about a topic, or deliver an inspiring presentation about content, can be motivating and engaging, but it by definition cannot account for every learner, unless that classroom has been  designed homogenously for auditory learners with an explicit and understood preference for lecture, paired with meaningful and relevant assessment practices.

That doesn’t happen. I’ve never, ever seen that kind of clinical approach to homogenization of child brains, and as such I feel confident in saying that lecture always fails to account for all learners. Many teachers are deeply comfortable with this approach, believe it works and can point to data that they’d use to support their case.

I don’t buy it. I’m unconvinced, as  a skeptic and as a student of our craft and this field, and as a reviewer of the literature. Indeed, I don’t even accept anecdotal evidence from some teacher exit surveys indicating the kids prefer the exciting and engaging lectures as their primary preference because I cannot control for the missing variable: They may never have truly experienced meaningful individually-relevant pedagogy such as I espouse, promote, and teach.

A teacher at the board all the time may be an indicator of too-teacher-centered practices, but the real problem isn’t what the classroom “looks like.” The underlying etiology is a failure to design.

The hardest work of student-centered pedagogy is done in design, just like Cassy sat down and meaningfully  applied theory, analysis, and skill prior to the actual work in her lab building her wildly-successful and elegantly-simple circuit, and just like the best strategic minds must consider all variables and eventualities using all of the data at their disposal prior to sending people into harms’ way as Don explained. We must invest far more resources in preparing teachers with pedagogical professional development,  and teach them more child psychology, strategies for each thinking and learning modality, innovative teaching techniques, meaningful instructional design, and the relevant and meaningful utilization of educational technology. We must provide teachers with vastly more time and resources to insightfully collaborate, and deeply invest in their instructional design practices, not only as a part of teacher preparation, but perhaps even more importantly, in an ongoing way throughout the school year, including meaningful, unencumbered collaborative planning during the day. Moreover, as I explicitly call for in “Insurrection,” I believe this shift away from what’s preferable for adults to what’s best for children ultimately demands that we dismantle many of the most traditional structures of the traditional school model, which stand starkly and immovably opposed to meeting individual child needs.

However, even notwithstanding these systemic problems, we as individual practitioners can  shift our  philosophy and subsequently our pedagogy to prioritize the individual child , then meaningfully account for each of them in our design.

Otherwise, as I write about again in the book, we engage in  “intent-based pedagogy” with a fingers-crossed hope-we-hit-the-mark monkeys-banging-on-typewriters fling-it-until-it-sticks approach to teaching our kids, instead of “outcome-based pedagogy,” which demands that we meaningfully nail the target every time, for every kid.

A kid’s success is always a moving target, because kids grow. They develop, they change, they think, they experiment, they challenge, they stumble, they fly, they fall, they leap right over and past us. They are agile thinkers, neuroplastic and neurocapable by design, and we have to do better than the shotgun-like scattershot of undesigned teacher-centered pedagogy. We must engage in meaningful,  relevant individualized teaching, and to do that, we cannot shoot first and ask questions later.

We have to, as Professor Mailman said and as Cassy rightly learned, and then reminded me, be diligent and thoughtful designers.

Ready… Aim… Teach.

Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!

My colleagues Charles tells me that no meeting I attend is considered officially adjourned until I’ve said the word “pedagogy” at least three times. We once had a surprisingly-brief meeting at a colleague’s school, and I got up and got my stuff, and he said, “Where are you going?” I indicated I thought the meeting was over, to which I got what we upstaters call The Seneca Falls Look – “c’mon, man, just do the obvious” for others – and he said, “You’ve only said it once!”

I sighed, said “pedagogypedagogy,” everyone laughed, and then we left.

Point one: I talk about pedagogy a lot.

Aaron Sorkin is my favorite television writer, and one of my favorite writers ever. He loves spoken diatribe, rant, debate, sparring, and the clever turn of a phrase like nobody else when it comes to rapid intellectual patter. The West Wing, A Few Good Men, The Newsroom… I consider him a genius.

It helps that he went to Syracuse, my hometown, and it helps further that his great mentor Arthur Storch gave him his most important aphorism: “Dare to fail.” Clearly, this is advice I adore.

Sorkin wrote The American President, one of my favorite movies, which for all of the rest of its pros and cons gets a spot on my list because of the great penultimate scene in which President Shepherd delivers his now-famous “I Am The President” speech. I quote it often, and here’s the part that’s resonating with me in this post:

“For the record: yes, I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU. But the more important question is why aren’t you, Bob? Now, this is an organization whose sole purpose is to defend the Bill of Rights, so it naturally begs the question: Why would a senator, his party’s most powerful spokesman and a candidate for President, choose to reject upholding the Constitution? If you can answer that question, folks, then you’re smarter than I am, because I didn’t understand it until a few hours ago.”

– Aaron Sorkin, “The American President”

Point two: Why aren’t you talking about pedagogy a lot?

I talk about the craft of teaching a lot because it’s what we do. We aren’t the learners, so we can’t do the learning for them. The best we can ever, ever do is teach. That’s what we do. Everything else is crap. I’m exhausted by people, in any number of positions or at any number of levels, trying to convince me (eternally in vain) that other priorities ought to eclipse kids and learning.




To stick with the TV trope, and quote  Michael Angeli writing the character Laura Roslin from Battlestar Galactica, “Not now, not ever.”

Preach your craft. Whenever anyone interferes with you, lands nonsense in your lap, challenges your intelligence and capability, attempts to lord unresearched and unlettered idiocy over you, quotes things out of context, forces ad hominem down your throat, bandies about errant   opinion  as if it is gospel… go to pedagogy. Go directly to the craft of teaching. Teach that person. Don’t relent. Don’t shrink. Don’t feint. Teach them.

I don’t care if it’s an administrator, a colleague, a parent, a politician… teach them. Teaching isn’t unprofessional, isn’t rude, isn’t cruel, isn’t punitive: It goes to where the learner is and seeks understanding and relevance. Show them what teaching really is. Get to know them, significantly, and engage them where they are. It might not get done the first time out. Your assessment might show that nope, they still didn’t get it, but you’re going to keep trying. Your personal frustrations may bubble up and challenge you. Your patience may be worn to a nub.

Tough. You’re a teacher. Get it done.

We didn’t sign up for something easy. You want to call yourself a teacher, then strap in and step up and do the work and get in here and help. We’re under siege.

Granted, I’m  renowned for being confrontational and not shying away from a fight, and I’m not asking you to step out in front of the  firing squad, but I DO want you to engage meaningfully  on the subject of teaching and learning when people attempt to interject nonsense into the conversation.

My pedagogy isn’t everyone’s – yet, LOL! – but if we bring every single conversation in education back to  teaching and learning, we’ll get our priorities straight.  HVAC problem? It’s about student health and wellness.  No gender-neutral bathroom? It’s about student safety and health. Need to schedule a county-wide activity mandated by central office? Do what’s best for kids. Considering painting a wall? Check the research on student color experiences and material safety around young people. Picking out a new chair? Investigate the seating preferences and needs of your students. And, in my current subfield of educational technology, goodness knows that every single conversation should be driven by what’s best for kids. I don’t care if it’s the cheapest option, if it’s easiest for the technicians we have, if it’s the system with which the adults are most familiar, if it’s what the adults are used to… none of that matters to me until and after we have considered all aspects of what’s best for our kids. If it sounds like I’m beating the same drum over and over, it’s because I am. As I write in Insurrection, “The educational revolutionary’s prime directive is  that children and their learning come first, in all things, now and forever, without exception.”

Pedagogy, pedagogy, pedagogy!

Get your copy of “Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children” today to learn more!

Safety versus Insulation in Discourse and Debate

I was listening to  an episode of The Diane Rehm Show recently, in which  the panelists were discussing free speech, honest debate, and  meaningful discourse on college campuses and the disservice some people   may be doing by actively avoiding    trigger warnings outright instead of confronting them actively and openly. The conversation also discussed the legacy of those who are memorialized in monuments and building names who may have questionable pasts.

I’m ambivalent on the topic, as  I am a deeply-flawed human being  who has a colorful past and who can certainly be offensive. In fact, to my genuine surprise, I was recently branded a “bigot” – granted, by someone who has some sociopolitical values that strike me as inhumane – but rather than saying “no, I’m not!” I have begun seriously questioning the circumstances that led up to that branding and what would have caused that person to react with such vehement verbal violence toward me when I have dedicated myself in many ways to fundamentally opposing bigotry. I’d like to think that generally speaking my words and actions are inconsistent with those of a bigot, but do I not have a moral imperative to  question that assumption, actively and transparently? I feel I must have the self-awareness and presence of mind to  know that I am a flawed person and need to respond to such critique in a prosocial, proactive, thoughtful way.

Thomas Jefferson intellectually and actually achieved something in the late 18th century to create a framework that has given us the necessary tools to uplift, celebrate, and recognize the criticality of diversity, free speech, egalitarianism, and human rights. It is ironic and worth discussing that Jefferson did not practice what he preached. We have some record that he struggle din some ways with this idea, but as one of the commentators said on the show, we should not pretend that “people are a product of their times” is a valid justification when we know there were people during that time that chose to act differently and more consistently with modern evolved understanding of equality. In places during the founding of this country, at the table, there were those who chose to act differently, who articulated that – for example – slavery was a scourge upon our species and should be actively eradicated. It’s worth us seriously questioning decisions to the contrary. Jefferson was certainly not a perfect person  – “Which of us is perfect?” asks DeVito’s Mickey Bergman in Mamet’s Heist –  but do we tear down the Jefferson Memorial?

Heist, (C) Warner Brothers

I don’t have answers in this situation, but I do want to participate in the debate. I want children and college students and the future generation to engage in this debate, because ultimately it’s their call. If symbols and characters and stories that I find benign or relevant, deeply and materially offend the future generation, I hope that they will have serious questions before they tear down elements of my present, but I also recognize that preserving something simply because it is old or a memorial is not worthwhile.

“Trigger warning” is being  abused. It refers to trauma stimulus, a situation or experience that is related, directly or superficially, in the mind of a person with post-traumatic stress. When the traumatized individual smells, for example, an odor directly related to an attack, the traumatized individual may experience  post-traumatic stress. This is a serious situation that deserves our compassion and understanding. However, being bothered by something that irritates or offends you is not the same as experiencing post-traumatic stress.  As educators, we do have some responsibility to raise awareness and help provide safety for individuals who may genuinely need assistance in avoiding unnecessary post-traumatic stress. However, as with all things educational, thoughtful scaffolding is not a barricade between the student   and learning. Students who are offended by racism, for example, as most any thinking person would be, cannot deepen their understandings of the source and nature  of racism without discussing and debating it. In the queer community, I sometimes   see social media admonishments that cisgender or heterosexual bias is a “trigger” followed immediately by raging statements of fury directed at cisgender people and heterosexual people. I sometimes see monotheists announce that bias against their religions are “triggers” for them, followed immediately by raging statements of vitriol directed at other religions or non-believers.

There is a difference, I believe, between building insulating walls around yourself and committing to your own narrow ideology and worldview, and honestly raising awareness about bias, prejudice, and discrimination.

I’m torn. I like controversy; hell I foment it, and I am the last person on the planet that is obsessed with the preservation of the extant on that basis alone. I write actively against that idea in Insurrection.  However, I do think we  academics have  an obligation to promote discourse. Several of the speakers on the Diane Rehm show indicated  that colleges are the ideal places for such significant debate. I cannot help but get a little Insurrectionist / Seditionist here: That’s why liberal arts should be the foundation of the academic tradition. It it insufficient to say at 18 years old, “this is who I am, I know what is right and wrong, and you all must conform to my world view.”

I find that this connects back to the last blog post I made about higher educaiton in which I excoriated the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan for saying “this is not a day care.”  Ironically, I’d wager thathe and I probablya gree that discomfort and discourse and debate are essential for growth and are needed more than ever and that every little offense should not be silenced. I don’t debate  that and if he had simply said that, I wouldn’t have had to take him to task. But that isn’t what he said.  He basically said “go pound salt”  to a kid, “I don’t care that you’re offended, I don’t care that you’re hurt.”

Discourse and debate is good for your growth. We shouldn’t insulate students   from controversy.  But as a good mama bear, he should know that in order for the cub to understand the big wide world, the cub can’t be caged or thrown off the cliff. Oppression and abandonment are extremes of pedagogy as well as cub-raising. These are   unloving acts and not a teacher response. What we say is “why?” What offended you? Why are you offended? What troubles you? What made you uncomfortable? Why? How? What biases exist? What conditions existed? What situations and ideas does this relate to? Let’s have a debate. Let’s have discussion.

President Piper didn’t appear the least bit interested in meaningful and thoughtful discourse about the student’s concern about  the pulpit proselytizing  based on I Corinthians. He didn’t seem the slightest bit inclined to validate the student and instead jumped to chastise and lower him. That is not consistent with the deeper discussion that can lead to better understanding that we’re talking about here. Did the student have a point? Was there a different interpretation? Was the student encouraged to read more? To research the origins of the passage? To analyze and compare? To engage with the original speaker? To develop a defense for the alternative position? Where was the teaching? Where was the learning opportunity? Where was the authentic acknowledgement of that student’s individual perspective as an aspiring scholar and the guidance to make him a more robust thinker?

A loving educator does those things. That’s entirely consistent with the message put forward in the Diane Rehm  episode: Debate, dissent, these are critical to growth.  Serious, meaningful roots in philosophy, pedagogy in my case, debates, discussions, psychology, sociology, reading, literature, art, culture, creating, analyzing… these are essential aspects to understanding the larger sociocultural questions we must face as scholars, as thinkers, as people, as citizens.

I want thoughtful  discourse in the context of safety and love and with the guidance of thoughtful pedagogues and meaningful scaffolding to ensure the best of all worlds, and I am discontent with extremes of abandonment to autodidacticism and autocratic oppression.

An Open Response to E. Piper’s Open Letter

This week, the president of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, Dr. Everett Piper, penned an open letter to students declaring that his university was “not a day care,” and that seems to be the message that the media is running with.

I don’t believe that’s the lesson to be taken away from Dr. Piper’s letter. Instead, re-read the third paragraph of his letter, which I excerpt here from his own blog:

“That feeling of discomfort you have after listening to a sermon is called a conscience. An altar call is supposed to make you feel bad. It is supposed to make you feel guilty. The goal of many a good sermon is to get you to confess your sins—not coddle you in your selfishness. The primary objective of the Church and the Christian faith is your confession, not your self-actualization.” – Dr. Everett Piper

Now, I have not heard the sermon. I’d be interested to, for context, but suffice it to say that if a student in a learning institution feels victimized by what Dr. Piper feels is an intentional and designed enterprise to instill shame, guilt, bad feelings, and confession of wrongdoing – all in the context of “love,” apparently – then I say that student has taken the first step in realizing that such phenomena have no place in learning, teaching, education, or a well-lived life.

I am appalled that a so-called educational leader would actively imply that a core principle of his university is the non-inclusion of self-actualization. Now maybe it’s just me and my liberal arts college commie pinko undergraduate music degree talking, but I believe that a college education is for  exactly that: to provide the environment, skills, inquiry, passion, resources, and opportunities to thrive in mind and ability, and take a critical and significant leap toward self-actualization. I find Dr. Piper’s flip, smug attitude about this student’s legitimate concern – because any student expression of victimization is legitimate, and if scandal after scandal about callous and inactive universities hasn’t taught us that, nothing will – to be entirely out of touch with the purpose of teaching.

Again, I was  privy neither to the student’s lamentation nor to the sermon that prompted it, but Dr. Piper cannot and must not claim to be interested and invested in learning and creating empathy and interpersonal understanding when he makes foolish and inhumane statements like, and I quote,  “Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a ‘safe place.'”

Perhaps a trip back to Educational Psychology 101 – or at OKWU, that’s Psychology of Education and Learning (EDUC 3003) – will help him understand that safety and feelings of belonging are critical foundations of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. One cannot achieve self-actualization without feelings of safety, security, and belonging, and this student clearly doesn’t feel those things at Oklahoma Wesleyan University.

Now, I do understand that the scaffolding involved in teaching comes away over time, and eventually students transition from being child learners to adult learners, and I certainly understand that controversy and conflict and failure are desirable characteristics in learning, as I write extensively in my first book on education.  However, those phenomena must occur in a student-centered space that does include compassion, safety, and understanding, lest true development, skill mastery, and indeed even social justice and interpersonal humanity be left behind in favor of brutalization, shame, and harm. Many institutions of learning seem to think it is their job to “toughen up” learners, and I say it is not. I say it is our place to listen and respond as thoughtful academics, and Dr. Piper let a golden opportunity to expand upon that student’s understanding of love sail right over his head.

Perhaps this student, like many others who may feel similarly that their individual learning needs and personal feelings and beliefs DO matter, should consider a less conservative institution that believes its brand of religion is to make you feel bad about yourself.

Not once when I studied at Ithaca College, George Mason University, or the University of Mary Washington, or taught at The George Washington University, did any professor or colleague intentionally attempt to make me feel bad about myself. That nonsense has no place in learning, at any age, at any institution, and Dr. Piper should know better. The fact that he doesn’t is embarrassing to me as a professional educator and should deeply concern any student of his, current or potential. Callous  insolence is not a loving response, and we educators and academics who are deeply concerned with the wellness and learning of the whole of every individual student should brook no such hypocrisy and ignorance as to say, effectively, “you should feel bad about yourself for not being more loving, so figure out how to love or go away.” I’d agree with Dr. Piper: If you want to be taught compassionately, OKWU would not be on my short list with leadership responses like that.

I’d be happy to write you a transfer recommendation, young man.

On the Paris Attacks

Ideology and institutionalism are  the common denominators that unify the suffering, tragedy, and violence that has been imposed upon free-thinking and free-living people throughout the world for as long as any of us can remember. The more adherent a person is to the ideas that they are commanded or coerced to adhere to, the less human that person becomes, and the easier mass violence is to perpetrate.

The surest anti-terrorism agents you have are a liberated, open, accepting, free-thinking mind and a connected, humane, empathetic heart.

Praxis in Practice: Necessary Minimalism in Student Discipline

Adult control of children is not a precept of education. Child freedom, however, is a fundamental precept of teaching and learning. Schools should not assimilate children into a culture of command and control, or demand children conform to traditional adult-imposed expectations of obedience. Instead, schools should consistently empower children and give them the same extraordinary latitude that we would allow any person (regardless of age), while providing age-appropriate scaffolding to protect them and help them make good decisions.

My litmus test for a “rule” is simple: Does it really matter?

“Take your hat off” is a stupid rule in 2015. It’s not a matter of expressing respect aligned to a value shared throughout our culture, and pretending that it is indicates that said pretender is out of touch. “Well, I think it matters,” I hear as a rejoinder. Awesome.

Your personal feelings don’t trump the rights of children or the need for the school to be minimalist in its imposition of behavioral mandates, lest the school culture descend into a system of coercion.

Take an extreme example in the recent assault of a student by a school resource officer in South Carolina. A child who refused to comply with verbal instructions to stand up was tackled to the ground while still in her desk and manhandled like a piece of luggage. Beyond the obvious egregious violation of her personal and physical right to be free from harm at the hands of a violent adult, this situation is troubling to me because of how it started.

She was using her cell phone.

I don’t know how many times I have to say this, but I’m going to keep saying it: stop trying to take these devices away from children. Mandating that a child fork over a personal electronic device is a stupid rule. It’s a stupid rule because it perpetuates teacher-centered, “pay attention to me” teaching methodology. It’s a stupid rule because it says “that device can’t help you learn.” It’s a stupid rule because it says “what I’m doing is so important there’s no possible reason for you not to pay attention to me.” It’s a stupid rule because it says “what I’m doing matters no matter if you don’t think so.”

This latter point is often a point of contention with colleagues. Students don’t learn things that aren’t relevant to them. If the material isn’t relevant, the problem is the design of the instruction, not the child. If we aren’t reaching a kid, engaging a kid, making the material interesting to and relevant to a kid, then I believe fervently and with all my heart that it is incumbent upon us, as educators, to address that with passion, seriousness, and thoughtfulness.

You cannot mandate a kid into learning.

You cannot demand a kid into caring.

You cannot order a kid into wanting.

The fundamental misperception of children as empty vessels who are too incapable, stupid, or ignorant to live their own lives is at the root of the vast majority of problems with the American public school, as I write extensively in “Insurrection: A Teacher Revolution in Defense of Children.” Mandating that a child “pay attention” presupposes a tremendous number of pedagogical, neurological, psychological, social, emotional, and individual things about that child and the situation at hand. The idea that every single kid will benefit and learn equally from a specific teacher-led task is absurd and runs contrary to what serious educators understand about children, and yet that is precisely the structure around which the majority of our classrooms are structured.

If a child “checks out” and wants to sit quietly and doodle on the phone, I must ask: Who cares?

I don’t presuppose, in the above scenario, that the child is ignorant or lazy. I want to ask more questions: Does the kid have skill mastery? Is the kid able to acquire skill mastery through another means? Is this typical behavior or a momentary outlier like we all have as people? What assessment vehicle is giving me meaningful information about understanding the child and the child’s learning situation? Has the child been afforded alternative opportunities and have those opportunities catered to the student’s individual learning modality?

The rejoinder that this is somehow “spoonfeeding” or “babying” is silly. Don’t you, as an adult, have certain things you do and don’t like? Certain ways you learn well and certain ways you don’t? Certain subjects that fascinate you and certain subjects that bore the crap out of you? Aren’t there certain skills that you developed in the context of other things that you do want to do, that you didn’t develop as a student when they were taught in a vacuum?

I was never a particularly adept mathematician and had no real passion for the subject, but when it comes to the analysis of student data relevant to a question I want answered or making sure my Star Trek Online starship is putting out maximum damage per second against the Romulans, you can rest assured I will invest extraordinary time and energy in developing my skills. This is a human universal: We only learn things that are relevant to us. We only care about things that matter to us. This may seem  tautological but it’s an important truism about student socioemotional and learning behaviors. As the adults in the situation, our responsibility is not to command respect and demand compliance, but to meaningfully go to where the students are, and develop learning situations that deeply, relevantly, seriously meet the individual needs of each individual child.

Consequently, imposing rules like “put that away” and “take that off” and “sit up straight” and such punitive nonsense is just a waste of our time. Letting that young lady sit quietly and use her phone would have been preferable in every single way to violently assaulting her and causing a massive disruption.

That’s what’s disruptive here: The adult behavior, not the child’s behavior.

Of course, I accept that this fundamental shift from an ideology of coercing to a pedagogy of providing will mean a near-complete redesign of the American public school system.

Hence, the book, and the insurrection to overthrow the status quo and truly revolutionize teaching. Until then, however, we can and must do better, and stop imposing nonsensical and sometimes tyrannical micromanagement upon children in the name of protecting them.

Mama Bear, out.