Blogging the string in the labyrinth of Crete

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Museums and Educational Style

So, last week my family and I took a day trip to Washington DC to visit monuments and museums. The weather was beautiful, and we visited the Lincoln Memorial, the Air and Space Museum, and stopped briefly at the Washington Monument and the White House.

Superboy's always liked museums, particularly ones that show how things work. He tends to charm museum guides by walking up to an exhibit and asking them about a dozen questions in a row, varying from the general to the specific, from the concrete to the propositional. His ability to remember and draw on these details later, and to make connections to other systems, is quite remarkable.

These qualities, unfortunately, have led to only mediocre success in his first-grade classroom. His teacher, who describes herself as "strict", has noted to me on several occasions his "behavioral problems" of not immediately following along with the group, or taking too long on tasks. In the first two weeks of school, she told my wife (with my son present) that he may have to be held back or transferred to a learning-disabled class. She's also mentioned that he's talked out of turn sometimes, and that he sometimes gets upset about inconsequential things.

We understand her struggles all too well. Superboy does tend to go from topic to topic as it interests him, and if he's interested in something other than whatever an adult is saying he may not listen. He will sometimes spend a long time doing something silly -- for example, being given a task to color in a row of boxes (a fairly typical first-grade task, apparently) he may choose to use a different color for each, and to carefully color the entire box. This sort of creativity will spill over into all sorts of activities (I've been told he's been scolded for not walking correctly). He also tends to get upset if something isn't exactly perfect -- he'll crumple papers if he gets a single question wrong.

Unfortunately, understanding her struggles and doing something about them are two different things. During the time Superboy's in school, we as parents have no power -- I cannot reinforce behavior that occurs in school directly, just as teachers cannot directly reinforce homework. I cannot punish his silly behaviors in school either. We could make obedience a more generally stressed value in our home, which might help, but to be honest I'm not sure I want to raise a child who's generally obedient. If I want a child to be obedient only in particular situations, such as school, he needs to be reinforced for obedience in those situations. Otherwise, he becomes discomfitingly well-suited to the US Army. So, she complains to me, and I listen somewhat sympathetically, but I figure she wouldn't be receptive to "change your entire approach to teaching and disciplining."

And, she is making mistakes. Some of her punishments involve aspects of humiliation (probably the aspect that's most bothered me, I'd rather she hit him), and she's probably fighting the wrong battles. Her marks of his behavior have gotten steadily worse over the course of the year; I'm not sure if these represent actual worsening behavior or her increasing frustration, but it could be both. Humiliation has never been a good tactic with Superboy, as he'll tend to resent it.

So, my son's practically a poster-child for the sort of loose education that most "fluff" (i.e., constructivist math/whole language) teachers advocate. I know he'd do fine in such a classroom, if run by the right teacher. In spite of this, I don't think that's the right way for most students, I don't think much of the actual curriculum of those philosophies, and I don't think it's structure in general which is the problem, but rather the specific structure of the standard classroom.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Skilled Teachers

Many teachers object to Direct Instruction, though few verbalize what I think is the core reason as well as Marilyn Wilson of MSU. It's rather neatly summed up in a quote here:

Teachers no longer need to plan their reading curriculum or consider the variability of their learners; the script must be followed. "Scripted curriculum" says Linda Rice, "has the effect of deskilling teachers who become simple deliverers of content and skill processes rather than those who intricately synthesize content, skills, and concepts to create sophisticated curriculum designed to meet the needs of their particular students."

The "deskilling" is the perception teachers have of following a script. They want to feel that they themselves are determining the children's needs and responding to them. Following a script will, in their minds, make their role more menial, rote, and less "professional", and turns themselves and the children into "robots".

On the schools matter blog Jim Horn points to some Direct Instruction videos, claiming that they show a "neo-eugenics system of cognitive decapitation" (neo-eugenics? I tend to wonder why Horn sees fit to bring up suggestions of racism, which has nothing to do with either side of the debate. Perhaps for dramatic effect?). I'd encourage anyone to watch them. He doesn't mention the videos are of the Baltimore City Springs school, which had been one of the worst performing schools in Baltimore. It was an urban school, with all that implies: poverty, behavioral problems, etc. Within a few years, they were within the top quarter of schools in the city. Given this, does he really see a problem with a teacher bringing the children through a reading curriculum in which both the teacher and students interact, where the teacher gives praise in an appropriate manner, and the students are learning the fundamental skills exceptionally well?

What teachers would often prefer to do is what they have been doing: creating a lesson plan, day-by-day (or, using the lesson plan they've built over past years), and including a lot of fun activities, such as reading aloud to children. They don't tend to keep good data on results, and the normal human tendency is to think one's doing a reasonably good job. So, they think taking their hands out of the curriculum is "devaluing" them.

I feel their perception is unjustified. Many people find following the DI "script" difficult, and it takes quite a bit of skill and initial training to do well. The science of behavior is not as advanced physics or chemistry, perhaps, but it is nevertheless rigorous and precise. Despite this precision, students do not respond to behavioristic techniques as if they're being "mechanized"; they respond as if they're involved in learning. Moreover, many professions follow scripts as a matter of course: police officers are rigorously taught how to behave with suspects and victims, doctors follow scripts both in performing procedures and in giving medical advice, and pilots follow scripts for everything from routine takeoffs and landings to emergency procedures. No one allows these people to learn the practice of their professions solely through on-the-job experience.

A DI teacher needs to be on top of their game constantly, and following a DI curriculum is far more difficult than reading to kids (which any parent could do). The skillset of a professional teacher is not, and should not be, in picking textbooks that reflect their ideology or inventing a curriculum. It should be in teaching -- actually conveying information and skills. A teacher who can do that, rather than being deskilled, is highly skilled, and deserves to be termed a professional.


Friday, April 20, 2007

Faithless Recovery and Where the Atheists Are

An anonymous commenter inspired me to write this post. Their comment was:

If you have no faith - how do you cope at such a time of loss.. And if you have faith what a test it must be to hold on to it and find reason and forgiveness...I'm from NY and no matter how many years go by,or how tight I close my eyes, 9/11 never goes away- my daughter and my life has forever changed since that day..the forgiving is slow and complicated and we will never forget.

Apparently, Dinesh D'Souza criticized atheists for not appearing at the memorial for the Virginia Tech students. D'Souza takes this as an indication that god exists (?), and that atheists globally are heartless.

Obviously, this is false.

Atheists experience the grief of loss of life quite as intensely as anyone else. Some may argue that atheists have a more final sense of loss, as many do not believe in an afterlife for the same reasons they do not believe in gods. And, unlike the contention of theists, most atheists attach value to people, valuing the lives we currently have over hypothetical future lives. Chances are, atheists are right with the others grieving, they're simply being courteous enough not to be outright insulting by gainsaying their beliefs at the time. I know well what that's like.

On September 11th, 2001, I was at my desk working at a respected, close-knit firm on one of the upper floors of the World Trade Center, Tower 2. That was at 8:43 am. A short time later, I'd lost over a third of my colleagues and friends.

The company sponsored a memorial service for the victims at a large church shortly afterward, which I attended both out of respect and the desire to see my remaining colleagues. Many were not immediately coming back to work, some never came back, and the company had found scattered workspots for each department so that even those who were working often saw no one outside of their close co-workers.

The memorial service was religious in nature. Listening to the eulogy was like being punched in the stomach over and over and over, to the point where I felt sick and numb at the same time. Those trying to be comforting extended the punishment.

"They're in a better place now"

"God decided it was their time"

"You should thank God you're safe"

The service and reception afterward was tortuous and traumatic. I'd never wanted to push my beliefs on others, and was thus a fairly quiet atheist. It simply wasn't a time I could bring it up with my coworkers; it would only have made them feel the same deep chasm that I felt between us. Possibly, they would recoil with revulsion at the idea that I could not imagine the victims with their dead relatives or continuing to watch over their living relatives as ghosts. I felt deeply alone and isolated from my coworkers.

Initially I simply worked to help the company recover. Remarkably, it did. Comfort came slowly, in dribs and drabs, mostly as I read less religious eulogies printed in newspapers and online. These simply celebrated the lives of the people -- describing, in pleasant terms, their personalities and idiosyncracies. In comments to the posts, I could see the outpouring of fond remembrances and the impact these people, even though many were young, had made in their lives. One could see what that impact had done, and the continuing impact it would have in the future both in their effects on others and in their children. It helped, and little by little the pain subsided. Passage of time itself helps, whether one's an atheist or theist.

Forgiveness is slightly more complex. After all, forgiving the 19 terrorists of that day, or Osama bin Laden, it largely irrelevant for them. It's not like forgiving your wife for cheating on you, or your best friend for crashing your car. I will not be in the position to have the terrorists answer to me. The only reason "forgiveness" is necessary is to keep me from personally obsessing over it. It's rather easy for an atheist not to obsess over 19 dead people who he never cared about in the first place. They're gone. It's only a slightly greater stretch not to obsess about OBL, who may be dead or alive, but either way I'm unlikely to ever meet him.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Political rhetoric on VT

Of course, gun control was only the first political motive to be advanced by the VT shootings. Yes, despite being only about five years old, some are suggesting the shootings show we should repeal NCLB.

From the "Whole Language" archives at (cleaned up a bit

Date: Wed, 18 Apr 2007 22:37:10 -0400
Reply-To: Teachers Applying Whole Language
Sender: Teachers Applying Whole Language
From: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: The Slaughter of Our Children by Our Children

I've been thinking about the other end of this for awhile -- the NCLB end. It's tragic what is being done to children in the name of meeting AYP! We have a lot of angry kids out there because the school culture is changing into one of "have to's" for both teachers and children. With all of the pressure to conform to standardized ways of being, teaching and learning, kids are giving up -- all ages. We are going to have thousands of 16 year olds turned loose on society because they have only made it to the 8th grade. Then what'll they do . . . Prisons aren't being built fast enough.Ruby

The WL proponents are not scientists -- they care a lot about children, but not much for logic and reasoning based on careful analysis. They're likely not aware that using this event politically, without any reference to anything other than their feeling of what's happening, is invalid. So my venom for them is muted, but simply put, they're being unreasonable. NCLB is not creating psychotics.


Cho Sueng-Hui

There's a lot of worry about backlash over the Virginia Tech shootings. Immigrants and Asian-Americans generally, and Koreans specifically, fear a wave of prejudice and potential violence against them.

That wave will never come. Too many in the media have already noted and warned against it. Asian-Americans are generally quite well regarded for their hard work and social status. Immigrants are far too diverse a group and the act too random to be successfully associated with them.

There will, however, be a significant backlash against psychotics. It will be long, harsh, and uncontradicted by the media. In fact, the media supports this backlash: headlines such as "Stare into the face of Evil!" juxtaposed against "Rantings of a Lunatic" ensure the connection will be made. Lunatics are evil and dangerous. The media will offer the video and records of Cho's writings as proof.

I'm no bleeding-heart liberal, and despise the restrictions of language that political correctness often irrationally imposes. "Lunatic" is a fine word, and pretty accurately describes Cho's rantings. However, even though we readily agree that Cho was crazy, he is defined as "evil" in the public eye and many of the religious wish for him to burn in hell. Our society vilifies Cho even more than a hit man with a "rational" reason for murder, despite the lack of self-control that lunacy suggests.

People will point out that most Asian-Americans are not child-killing monsters, or would if there were any real danger of them being stereotyped (cf., Muslims). They will not point out that most of the insane are also not dangerous. Psychologists in institutions will be much more careful about certifying that someone is well enough to be allowed into society, and there is already a bias towards keeping people in. A state psychologist won't be criticized for the number of patients they decide aren't ready to be in public. However, if one leaves on their permission and goes on a murder spree, the psychologist's professional life is forfeit.

Unfortunately, that means my brother will likely be spending more time in the institution currently holding him. He's been between locked down mental hospitals solidly for the past seven years. Having shared a room with him for over ten years, I know the ravings of a diseased mind quite well. I know the futility of non-drug therapies. I know both the moments of complete insanity and the stretches of relative lucidity. I've met other psychotics as well, in college personally and while studying psychology as a major. And I've learned that most of the time, psychotics are afraid. They constantly imagine things around them which don't exist and connections that make no sense.

Imagine being compelled to invent and alter your own complex religion, ritual, and symbology on the spot, and have it unaffected by reality. It can be confusing talking to such a person, but rarely frightening unless you have a very low tolerance for the unexpected. The conversation would far more likely be frightening for them.

And this means that Cho's rantings are worse than useless to all but an academic. People will wonder about the details of "Ismael Ax" and his reference to Jesus Christ and postulate that religion may have had something to do with it. They're wrong. I don't like religion, but it has nothing to do with this. The videos are worthless to the general public. Publishing his rantings does nothing more than give future lunatics another person to cite in their own ravings, with no more relevance than Cho's reference to Harris and Klebold. Showing them on tv was simply sensationalism. No one should expect any reason that appears remotely valid to a sane mind.

There will also be backlash against Cho's family. There are scattered articles about the horror "just beginning" for them (obvious news flash: the family's horrors began some time ago, it just wasn't on the front pages then. And it's infinitely worse now). Cho's parents will almost certainly have difficulty in their community, as people wonder if it was somehow their fault. They'll receive no outpouring of sympathy from the larger community, and chances are good that an awkward few will attend the funeral. People will likely eye Cho's sister warily, suspecting that there lies a dark heart somewhere within her. And everyone around them, without fail, will know who they are related to but not address it with them. Cho's parents will remember with great pain the promise their son showed at one time. They'll cringe as they see the writings posted online, recalling far better work he'd written when clear-headed. They'll fear that no one will ever understand that their son was more than just a murderer, that no one will see him as more than a heartless killer now.

You might not find yourself capable of feeling grief for the 33rd person gunned down. But somewhere, in your hearts or minds, remember that the situation was no less tragic for him and his family than for the first 32 victims.


Monday, April 16, 2007

An Atheist and the Tooth Fairy

I have a strange life in some ways. One co-worker had described me as "the most interesting person he's ever met" -- after initially telling me I wasn't the smartest person he'd ever met (this didn't bother me, as there are a lot of very smart people in the world. The odds are quite great that I'm not the smartest person you've ever met either). I wanted to start blogging, but if I used too much time giving background on who I am I'd never get to any "live" posts. In the future, I'll try to focus on the less typical aspects of my life and thoughts, and try to discuss topics that are somehow relevant to someone. So, here goes:

My first post comes from a problem I had to deal with this past weekend. I'm an atheist, and this particular issue comes from my oldest child. I'll call him "Superboy", for reasons that I'll make clear in a future post.

Contrary to the beliefs of many of those holding religious ideals, many atheists often face dilemnas of ethics and morality. For example, most American atheists hold that no god exists because of a "null hypothesis" form of reasoning. So, in raising children, there is often an ideal not to expose them to "magical thinking". At the same time, atheists often have an ideal not to force their beliefs on others, including indoctrination of their own children. Recognizing that children are quite malleable, the combination of these two proves to be a difficult undertaking. While preventing exposure to magical thinking, atheist parents who hold these ideals need to be very cautious in how they correct their children's thinking, or even how they have conversations with them.

Moreover, many childhood rituals involve magical thinking rather heavily.

So, the particular question that posed itself yesterday didn't actually involve gods at all. No -- it was the tooth fairy. My six-year old lost a tooth, and we were discussing what he might get on leaving the tooth under his pillow.

Now, a die-hard atheist would vilify me. I shouldn't really tell my kid a tooth fairy exists, and should set him straight right away, this person would claim. They might be right. It was actually an older cousin who brought up the fairy, but I didn't have the heart to tell my child the fairy didn't exist. Fortunately, Superboy has always had a strong ability to separate fantasy and reality.

I was somewhat gratified, therefore, when he turned to me and said:

"Of course, the tooth fairy doesn't really exist."

"Oh?", I said, interested in where this was going, "it doesn't?"

"No," he replied firmly, "because fairies don't exist."

I nodded, smiling slightly. "You're right," I said simply, feeling delving into the difficulties of proving negatives to be somewhat tangential, "But then, where does the money come from?" I was intentionally pushing him to see how much he'd considered.

"I wonder..." he said, looking at me from the corners of his eyes. This struck me as rather sophisticated for his age, suggesting he thought he knew where the coins came from without saying so explicitly.

"You're very clever," I said, "Who might have put it there? Who would have wanted a tooth?"

Though I'm convinced he's at the very least fairly certain how the money gets under the pillow, to this he simply said, "I don't know", and seemed unwilling to follow the train of logic further. So we hopped off that train, and ended up hypothesizing about the "tooth tarantulas" -- spiders that need teeth, and borrow them from children whose teeth have fallen out, replacing them with huge ungainly coins. The image of big toothy spiders running around was pretty funny, so we giggled about that for a while. In the end, it seems like even though he had a good idea of what the truth is, he preferred to remain where he is for now.

I do tend to wonder how the religious deal with this sort of thing. Clearly the tooth fairy would be a sort of occult figure, and yet I'm betting Christian parents barely give it a second thought. Of course, I do know some atheists subscribe to the idea of "family beliefs", and would happily teach their children the truth or falsehood of the tooth fairy without a second thought. For me, however, the question whether I should teach my children anything about the tooth fairy ranks right up with the question of whether I should teach them anything about gods.

Incidentally, the tooth spider left him a dollar.

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