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Reforming Education Reform

Reforming Education Reform By Patrick W. Atwater

”In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it. This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.” — G.K. Chesterton

Consider a canonical education reform case study: class size reduction. In the early nineties, this policy gained steam as the reform du jour and earned favor at California’s Capitol.


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As a result, the policy needed-to-be-done. And done quickly. Never mind the fact that there are deep reasons we develop, plan and finance capital improvements like school facilities over the span of several years, the new incentives meant districts needed to reduce class sizes almost overnight.

sizes? And why do we not more fully consider that perhaps a given student might learn best in one environment for one line of inquiry and in a different environment for another?

Political reformers wanted results yesterday. So bungalows were hastily constructed to house the new teachers anywhere space was available – often on playgrounds. The reformers beautiful map crashed into the realities of California’s 10,000 plus schools – each with its own local particularities – and children lost an opportunity to play.

Human beings are unique creatures after all. So why not make such learning group size decisions on the basis of individual students and specific subjects? Some may point out some obvious barriers: the difficulty coordinating so many individualized learning plans, the difficulty in differentiating so many curriculums, or the challenge in managing kids going at such radically different paces in such diametrically different directions. And I’d agree. Our current education bureaucracy probably could not tackle the information management challenge presented by such a goal.

Some people forget about this byproduct of a blue ribbon, research driven reform. I do not. The reformers ruined my recess, and I want it back. Over the intervening years, we’ve had a raging management-labor dispute over which group of adults has power, but the basic model of school as a place where students go to sit in neat rows and get talked at for several hours each day has not changed. In fact, that underlying factory-like structure has remained basically the same since Horace Mann brought the Prussian common school model to Massachusetts over a century and a half ago. Yet humans are not widgets and it makes little to no sense to talk in terms of “optimal” class sizes in universal terms. What regression should one run to uncover the truth of whether every human ever will learn best in a classroom with under 20 students, a classroom of 34 students, alone in their backyard canyon or among a hundred thousand online peers? How is it not a premise that students learn better in groups of various

So why not pioneer a new education ecosystem? Here it’s important to remember what’s changed since the early nineties. The internet has dramatically matured, providing categorically

Total Factor Productivity 6.10 5.90 5.70

Natural Log

5.50 5.30 5.10 4.90 4.70 4.50


1947-1973 Trend


Total factor productivity is the part of economic production that can’t be explained by labor, capital, and other known factors. It’s an economist’s proxy for technological growth and the impact that intellectual advancement has on an economy. Tyler Cowen famously argues that innovation slowed beginning in the 70’s in his book The Great Stagnation. Yet what if the problem wasn’t a lack of technological progress so much as the absence of thoughtful application to public problems like education? Information technology has accelerated at a rapid pace during that time, but educational institutions have largely not adapted to this changing world. We call the potential that disconnect creates a frontier.


Reforming Education Reform

new pathways for learning. Google, Wikipedia and the like lead the vanguard of the trend towards ubiquitous information. The digital divide, the enduring importance of tribal knowledge and other barriers should not to be taken lightly, but the direction is definitely towards a world where textual knowledge can be accessed anywhere at any time. Moreover, platforms such as Quora offer a virtual glimpse into how community might transform education. The nascent collaborative consumptive economy hints at the increased ease in which community might be activated. The popularity of meetups and skillshares suggests a hunger for local knowledge and desire for lifelong learning across diverse groups. Looking at what might classically have been education technology, the explosive growth of Khan Academy or MOOCs demonstrates the ubiquity of accessible knowledge and hints at the immense opportunities when easy access to well-developed curriculum became a given. At a deep level, the foundational ingredients of an inquiry-led ecosystem-connectivity, information abundance, and design iteration--already exist in exemplars like the iPhone, Wikipedia, and Y-Combinator. So what does that mean for K-12 education today? Look at how we teach history. We give students thick textbooks that proclaim to have the Answer to what happened in the past. That’s simply an absurd situation when primary sources – many of which have irreconcilable conflicts – are just a quick Google search

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” -Mark Twain away. This dime store metaphysics embedded in how we teach K-12 history has always been problematic; the information revolution has just made it more readily apparent that it does not need to be this way. The perspectival nature of human events – the fact that the American founding was a vastly different experience if you were a slave versus if you were a slave owner – is a huge part of what makes the inquiry valuable, allowing us to explore beyond the contingencies that define our lives. One of my favorite experiences in history was 11th grade US history, taught by an avowed socialist who did not have pretenses to some view from nowhere. He was genuine about where he was coming from and honest about that view’s implications. I disagreed much and learned more. What might we take away as we look to root causes? The deeper problem is the premise embedded in curricular standards that human knowledge can be chunked into a universal categorization architecture and that one standard path, with perhaps minor detours viz a viz middle and high school electives, is the best way forward for all students. For example, the California History standards stress citizenship. Why though do we think that’s something best learned from a textbook along a pre-set path? Why not instead have radically more field trips to local League of Women Voters or Chamber of Commerce or Union Locals or neighborhood newspaper or other civic organizations to gain firsthand institutional knowledge of the issues in their community? And more than


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This talk of reimagining education might strike some as boldly new. Yet it’s worth remembering that this pioneering spirit is what has made California - and really America - great. Consider the following passage from Frederick Turner’s canonical talk The Significance of the Frontier in American History:

“Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them. He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased. Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise.” -Frederick Jackson Turner

just a field trip, why not have these sorts of community based forums become seminar style classrooms? As we say in the League, democracy is not a spectator sport. Moreover, deeper questions can proceed organically from such excursions. It’s natural for students to ask: well why do we do town council meetings this way? Why not another? Where did a given practice come from? Who did that first? As an intellectual, I can understand the pedagogues’ desire to jump right into the state standard approved topics of Athenian democracy and Pericles’ funeral oration. Yet to be meaningful, the abstract needs to proceed from the particular and grand topics like citizenship need to connect to the brass tacks of student’s real lives. Relevance and Creativity The most basic question a student can ask is “why are we learning this?” We often brush this aside as impudence yet it’s an extraordinarily valid question. A couple weeks ago, I ran an experiment at a local elementary school to see what students do when posed with one of Paul Lockhart’s problems from his invaluable book Measurement. Well above grade level, I presented them with a claim: that given any triangle in the world, connecting each vertex to the opposite midpoint will result in three colinear lines. I fielded a few questions then wrote “Why?” in capital letters across the board and told them I’d be back in two weeks to hear their answers. The best ones would win a book. Returning to the classroom, rather than simply present the answer and dish out grades, I asked them to form small groups and choose the best answer to present to the class. The resulting chaos was stunning: there are few things more beautiful on this good earth than seeing budding young minds bustle to uncover the secrets of triangles. And while none of them really proved the claim rigorously, one enterprising young lady successfully demonstrated that the resulting six subtriangles generated from the vertexto-median lines all have the same area. Inquiry often travels a meandering road but


provide ample provisions and you’ll be sure to reach a worthwhile, if perhaps not an expected, destination. Lamenting the state of students’ test scores, political reformers often discuss the need to make math more relevant. I take a slightly different angle, starting with the premise that the punditocracy that dominates the education reform discourse needs to learn what actually constitutes mathematics. Because when you get down to the nuts and bolts, it would be hard to imagine a more relevant discipline to any student of any age. The problem is that much of what’s taught in public K-12 education isn’t mathematics so much as the regimented manipulation of abstract signs. The word mathematics itself etymologically comes from the Greek word for “that which is learned.” There is a reason math is the only formal subject that qualifies both as a liberal art and a hard science and eludes a consensus definition. Formulating useful definitions, developing lines of analysis, synthesizing that inquiry and exploring generalizations -- such quintessentially mathematical thinking is

perhaps the most useful tool humanity has yet utilized.

Reforming Education Reform

Mathematics transcends any individual human life, meaning the same in any tongue and across any age. Mathematics operates in Brian Rotman’s memorable phrase as “a vast and unique man-made imagination machine controlled by writing.” Mathematics is a vast frontier of possibility, humanity’s purest and in some ways most creative pursuit. In that vein, mathematics speaks to what it means to be a human being. And by and large the structure of our education system shows little to no respect for that reality. We strictly regiment how students encounter this terrain, demanding that they venture forth according to preset paths at a literally standardized pace: algebra, geometry, algebra II, etc. etc. This rigid K-12 curriculum offers little of the potential for imaginative exploration that makes the subject so magical. So why exactly do we teach math this way? Paul Lockhart, a professional mathematician turned K-12 teacher, puts the point more poignantly than I ever could: “All this fussing and primping about which “topics” should be taught in what order, or the use of this notation instead of that notation, or which make and model of calculator to use, for god’s sake— it’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic! Mathematics is the music of reason. To do mathematics is to engage in an act of discovery and conjecture, intuition and inspiration; to be in a state of confusion— not because it makes no sense to you, but because you gave it sense and you still don’t understand what your creation is up to; to have a breakthrough idea; to be frustrated as an artist; to be awed and overwhelmed by an almost painful beauty; to be alive, damn it. Remove this from mathematics and you can have all the conferences you like; it won’t matter. Operate all you want, doctors: your patient is already dead.” The obvious rejoinder is to stress the importance of basic skills in getting to this more creative exploratory phase. And there’s merit to that argument. Without discipline and techniques

forged through practice, such creativity too often devolves into little day dreaming. Yet it’s of paramount not to lose sight of that creative exploration in mathematical education. I think about the matter like football. Without wind sprints and tackling drills, it’s hard to get into the shape and have the technique needed to play football. But those aren’t the point of football. They’re just preparation for Friday night (or Saturday morning). That in a nutshell is the problem with how we generally teach mathematics in K-12 public education: we rarely if ever give students the opportunity to play the game. And opportunities to push your limits in a more open-ended environment are critical if you want to play at a high level. The unstructured chaos of football in the park or a challenge to explore the secrets of triangles might not constitute a proper football game or mathematical proof in the fullest sense but they are undoubtedly an instrumental prelude. The Missing Ingredient: Metis The lessons from football go a bit deeper too, illustrating how learning bleeds across different subjects. The value of discipline or the strength that comes from training as part of a team are lessons best learned through practice but can transcend their particular context -- even from a “base” pursuit like football to a “pure” endeavor like mathematics. The value of such practical knowledge goes beyond building character. In a nontrivial way, some of my most valuable experiences for higher mathematics dated back to my childhood propensity to explore our backyard creek and neighborhood mountains. Such experiences engaged important questions. What do you do when you get stuck? How do you react? Do you poke around for new avenues? How determined are you really to uncover what you’re looking for? The broader takeaway of learning to be comfortable in unfamiliar terrain is invaluable in mathematical inquiry. Exploring a potential proof operates precisely in the space without a preset path. We too often forget that substantial areas of human knowledge are necessarily unmapped. Think of what doctor learns in residency, a novice carpenter learns in an apprenticeship or an aspiring public servant learns in a Coro Fellowship. The whole point is that such practical insight cannot be gained in a classroom or through a book. The ancient Greeks even had a name for this sort of knowledge: Metis. James Scott’s magnum opus Seeing like a State masterfully articulates the value of this sort of practical experience: “Metis is most applicable to broadly similar but never precisely identical situations requiring a quick and practical adaptation that becomes almost second nature to the practitioner. The skills of metis may well involve rules of thumb, but such rules are largely acquired through practice (often in formal apprenticeship) and a developed feel or knack for strategy. Metis resists simplification into deductive principles which can successfully be transmitted through book learning, because the environments in which it is exercised are so complex and nonrepeatable that formal procedures of rational


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The ancient Greeks even had a name for this sort of knowledge: Metis. Learning aquired through practice.

decision making are impossible to apply. In a sense, metis lies in that large space between the realm of genius, to which no formula can apply, and the realm of codified knowledge, which can be learned by rote.” Seeing like a State p. 315-316 More broadly, James does a magnificent job of exploring the critical importance of Metis for successful reform projects by drawing out deep lessons from case studies of efforts to improve the human condition that went horribly wrong. The book is a must read for any aspiring reformer, and the chapter on practical knowledge does an incredible job articulating what constitutes Metis through examples. This form of practical knowledge is with a few notable exceptions entirely absent from California’s K-12 education structure today. Sure there are various efforts to link learning in schools to the real world through apprenticeships and pockets of excellence in experiential learning yet by and large Metis remains absent from California’s K-12 structure. Just look at what we test. In any initiative, what you measure guides what you do. And our test taking industrial complex largely focuses on regurgitating academic knowledge. California’s funding determinative Academic Performance Index rests on multiple choice questions and formulaic essay prompts. The first part of the rubric for these sorts of prompts asks whether you address all parts of the writing prompt. Yet what if you disagree with the premise? In my experience with California state testing that gets you failed. So much for creativity or open-ended inquiry. We measure for standardized academic knowledge and completely ignore Metis, which is critical not only for practical work but also for creative insights that push the human race forward. Just think of all the situations that are almost entirely irrelevant to our


state education bureaucracy. A disillusioned junior finds high school irrelevant to his life and turns his intellectual energies towards his uncle’s carpentry shop, crafting works of art and building an intuition that’ll serve him far better when he returns for formal college study in engineering years later. A bright young student achieves a wide spectrum of results, alternatively acing tough advanced placement courses and nearly failing standard general education requirements. He independently organizes a trip to India with his robotics team to share their creations with a peer group. A dedicated student enjoys school but craves opportunities to push herself to her limits and spends her free time training for the LA marathon. She finishes. For the massive bureaucratic levers that control school funding and set policy, such learning might as well not exist. For those structures, what’s really relevant in the above situations is how those activities affect grades and test scores. I fail to see why that has to be the case. Evaluating such examples demands local insight but that

Reforming Education Reform

does not mean they are metaphysically immune to rigorous measurement. Why not have presentations with local community members as judges? That worked well at one high school in my hometown. The resulting scored rubrics could be quantified and thus analyzed at a statewide level. More broadly, the pressing becomes how we might might measure the unique and nonstandard. Here’s a few lines of inquiry that may prove profitable: How often do students effectively question given premises? How curious are they to explore new territory? How many awesome projects completely outside of a set curriculum do they take on? Measuring those activities is far harder than running multiple choice tests through a scantron but is actually valuable in assessing student learning. Thinking about measurement, the reader could be forgiven for peering back up the rabbit hole of education we have climbed down and wondering how this all connects back to California reform. So let us recap. Our initial motivation was to see how historical understanding and local context played out in a concrete case study, namely class size reduction. We then explored the deeper challenges in how we educate students, each with their own unique brand of inquiry. We discussed how perspectival topics like history might be made more relevant by embracing subjectivity and probed the creative foundations of mathematics. We continued to examine the deeper roots of our current K-12 educational shortcomings and found the ancient Greek concept of Metis to hold substantial water.

a factory model - largely ignore all the practical knowledge humans gain just by, well, living. As the great John Dewey said, “Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” We too quickly forget that schools are far from the entirety of education. Metis highlights the fact that education extends far beyond formal schooling and that the shortcomings of our current school structures are foundational. The argument is not that we should completely toss out how we currently educate the next generation; rather we need to look deeply at the foundations of our educational model and examine how we might build a model that more fully reflects the world we live in.. Returning to our original case study, before we can ask what size is optimal for a classroom, we need to ask what actually constitutes a classroom. The answer lies beyond four walls and a few desk chairs.

In a nutshell, our current state educational structures - curriculum standards, standardized testing, regimented school days, and the rest that’s rightfully derided as

A disillusioned junior finds high school irrelevant tojunior his lifefinds and turns A disillusioned high school his intellectual energies towards to his shop, life crafting and turns his hisirrelevant uncle’s carpentry works of art energies and building intellectual towards anhis uncle’s intuition that’ll serve him far better carpentry shop,for crafting when he returns formalworks collegeof art and study in engineering yearsthat’ll later. serve him far building an intuition better when he returns for formal college study in engineering years later.

Alexander and Co. Carpentry Shop in Sierra Madre California teaches skills that transcend the classroom.


Reforming education reform  

A deep dive into the foibles of education reform and how we might reimagine public school on a more humanistic foundation.