Thursday, June 14, 2007

Jargon, Silos, and More Fish Metaphors (In That Order)

Babble in Babel

One of the reasons I began this blog is to persuade experts in particular lines of work to acknowledge and consider the ideas of those in disciplines other than their own.

Business people call these divisions "silos." It's proof of concept really. Those with MBAs of found jargon to exclude everyone else from the conversation, especially, I suppose, from anyone with a different education, like those on farms, from whom the word was most likely taken.

My idea is that if you round up all the people who have the same goals for people in their charge -- which, according to my interviews, seems to be almost everyone -- and come up with a common vocabulary, people would learn what they need to know from the time they start kindergarten through the time they retire.

Once Upon a Time . . .

I told a story about a year ago about attending a conference for primary school teachers to learn to teach writing. Everyone in the room had some colleagues in common -- except me. When it came time to introduce myself and what I wanted to get out of the day, I explained that I had taught at Brown and wanted to know how my kids knew what they did and were so weak in other related thinking skills.

The shock to me: I was the only university teacher any of these people had met other than their own.

Teaching to a Standard

How can primary, middle, or high school teachers teach to a standard if they don't know what it is? In fact, how can any of these people get their students jobs if they haven't also consulted with industry?

The only sort of person who connects each stage of learning for a child (and adult) is an administrator. From school to school, from school to university, from university to industry, we've got administrators screening people about how they learn.

And how one learns was the number one priority of every person I interviewed -- from teachers to policemen to C-level executives.

Shouldn't the principal stake-holders -- those for with whom these kids will learn the next stage of thinking -- have a say in all this?

But I Digress . . . .

My name is Annette, and I am a recovering academic.

I was never your ordinary academic, however, and that's probably why I no longer dwell in the Ivory Towel (as my mother calls it). There is a large group of us who were interested in what is true rather than what is clever, although the latter is always fun when the former is the priority.

I had a conversation with a non-academic friend of mine two days ago (let's call him Sam), and he couldn't understand why the university people with whom he was negotiating a deal to build their technical infrastructure were so nasty to him.

Sam stopped formal schooling with a BA. When asked by academics if he has a PhD, he replies that he has a Masters and Johnson. From what he tells me, most of the people in the room usually don't get the joke.

That Smarts

Sam is one of the brightest and most creative people I've ever met. He also gives others credit for being as curious and excited about new ideas as he.

Then Sam started working for institutions of higher learning. He found that not only would professors not admit they didn't know what he was talking about, they'd insist that he was wrong.

Sam is from the practical innovation side of business. A babe in the woods when it comes to scholarship (even what has become known as business scholarship). In other words, he acts on ideas rather than writing them down.

Now please believe me when I say -- I'm not generalizing about all academics. Just the very insecure ones and those who give up common sense in favor of cleverly worded nonsense. These categories are certainly not mutually exclusive.

Academics as Bottom Feeders

My explanation is that the profession itself has become so distorted that, particularly in the liberal arts and social sciences, academics have been forced to become bottom feeders.

In order to survive, teaching can't get in the way of publishing.

This is what the highest standard of education has become.

Any idea, no matter how inane, is fair game, as long as no one has found it before and it can be defended, even by the most fantasical series of arguments.

Living in the depths, where there is hardly any light, sight naturally dims and visual field narrows. After a while, turning on the lights can be painful. Also, once it's clear that the fodder for publications consists mostly of left-overs, university dwellers can feel pretty embarassed.

Not surprising that they would want to bite the hand that flicked the switch.

Back to the Point (What Was It Again?)

To come full circle here (I'll bet you didn't think I could), the way one discipline thinks about another -- and each about itself -- has got to change.

It all comes down to language.

Get rid of jargon, and you've got transparency. Once you can see what's being said or done -- in terms of other things that are being said or done in other fields -- priorities will shift.

Would become the leader in his field (as happened in the 80s) by making a huge career out of pounding out book after book on gender casting in Shakespeare?

Would he have a top job if a theater historian would reveal that his premise is all wrong? That in Shakespeare's time, casting was part of the joke and not part of some obscure counter-culture revolution?

Imagine all such academics without the protection of jargon, without the ability to obfuscate, examined by people who actually know what they're talking about.

Imagine these poor souls being forced to find another job, a more useful pursuit, like, say, digging ditches or trying to cure cancer.

And imaging those at university learning from mentors who were not intellectually opportunistic and who were genuinely interested in their students' development.

So What to Do?

In order for real innovation to happen and be recognized, for someone in one discipline to either collaborate or expose the frauds in another, each has to be able to understand what the other is saying.

Imagine what a shift would happen if this same principal were applied to a more lucrative field -- say, business. What might happen to the stock market if every genuinely innovative mind had the vocabulary to converse with every other?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Musings on Schools -- of Fish, and Others

Richard Gilder, the CEO of CAGSE (the consultancy for which I now work), wrote a most insightful note on adolescents.

He says,

Adolescents (and many young[er] adults as well) are in a constant battle with what they perceive as two diametrically opposed desires:

to be their own person;
to be part of a group. . . .

Self-confidence comes when adolescents realize that they fit into a group not in spite of, but because of, their independence.

In everything but relationship between pronouns and verbs, there must be agreement all round.

What Does It Mean to Learn to Be Your Own Person?

Going back to past posts, it is impossible to consider the learning process as an entirely intellectual exercise. Cognition involves a web of both emotional reactions and more abstract analyses.

What is inspiration but a meeting of intellectual and emotional insight? And can anyone develop an idea without first being engaged in other ways as well?

Yet by the time students in school are old enough to write persuasive essays or research papers, they no longer use "I" or any reference to feeling at all. The fashion dictates that both erode credibility.

Eventually students become dissociated from their feelings, their likes and dislikes, their own impulses -- themselves. Academic fields define the methodology as creating an objective voice in writing.

Circular (Il)Logic

If being objective means being able to argue all sides of a question, then clearly engagement is a necessary component. There has to be an "I" who knows, writes, talks, and so on. To disallow the pronoun is just windowdressing -- and can be downright dangerous.

True, the students who stop learning by cutting themselves off from their own inner resources often succeed academically because, with no inner compass, navigate by saying what others want them to say in the way they are asked to say it. They also might succeed in social groups (that I leave to Dr. Gilder), but then it might be the kind of group you don't want to join because it would have someone like you as a member.

Later on, the danger increases when these successes choose careers because it's what they feel others think they should do for a living (hence the invention of the mid-life crisis).

And So . . .

Emma Gilding once said to me that every school constitutes its own ecosystem. Social, academic, political, and emotional tides rise and fall and crash against each other while the both the adult and adolescent inhabitants develop habits to help them survive.

How hard must it be to stand the pressure?

I'm not against trying all sorts of writing -- why not? But it seems to me that some of the time, the least a teacher can do is allow kids to have their say. And to claim the ideas as their own with any pronoun they like.

Friday, June 08, 2007

A Good Idea Takes Off -- A Bit of News

Latin Appeals

Regardless of the run-of-the-mill attitude that Latin is a luxury -- or worse, irrelevant in a modern world -- there are now thirteen schools in London interested in giving classes next year. There are ten primary schools in Hackney, two secondary schools (into which the primaries feed), and one in Kilburn. There's also one secondary school in Preston near Manchester.

That's a lot of interest after Lorna's one class for one year of teaching in an underperforming school.

And So, An Appeal for Latin

CAGSE, in conjunction with Boris Johnson, MP, will be holding a fundraising event at the House of Commons on June 26th. No money will be raised there exactly -- it's really for people of means and interest to see if they'd like to fund the programs for next year and for later discussion.

The Learning Labs are another set of programs in which underperforming schools have shown a great deal of interest. Geraldine Walkington, our Director of that project, has done quite amazing work with twelve-year-olds in Preston.

More on that in the next post.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

What Can Latin Do For You?

Lorna Robinson, Director of Latin Programs for CAGSE for which I am Executive Director, is a tremendously talented teacher. I had the luck to sit in the back of a class of nine-year-old's in Hackney in London. Hackney is one of the lower performing school districts in England.

Learning Environment

The day I sat in, Lorna had the kids learning the imperative tense in Latin by making signs telling someone -- or some people -- to do something. The idea was to get the spelling and endings right.

Lorna buzzed around the room answering questions while the regular classroom teacher kept order in a highly marshal manner that seemed almost reflex. The contrast between her strategy and that in which the Latin was taught made it clear how lucky the kids were to have Lorna, even if they learned no Latin at all.

Remarkable, Ordinary Kids

On the white board were conjugations, just as in any language class. There were no special guides for children -- no illustrations that often accompany text in books for kids of this age.

The children focused on their signs, correcting them as Lorna answered queries. My favorite was a boy who told his peers "Don't Eat Cats," although he had to correct one of his word endings to make it correctly plural.

The most remarkable moment, however, came when the sign-making was almost over. "That's an object, Miss," he said, without hesitating, in response to a query from Lorna at the front of the room.

Way Ahead of the Game

When I taught at an Ivy League school, my students had never learned the parts of speech in English. I very much doubt most of them knew them in Latin.

However, the Hackney kids had none of the advantages -- or experience that comes with age -- that my students had. Yet these nine-year-olds know their grammar because they interact with language in creative ways, rather than by memorizing rules.

Why Latin?

English makes very little structural sense when compared to many other languages.

Latin, on the other hand, is much more regular. As a root language no longer in use, it's immune from the kinds of changes that happen over time to the languages that derived from it.

There's another reason in England why Latin is such a powerful tool in a place like Hackney. The class system, no longer as visible as it once was, nevertheless has prevented Latin from being used in the schools in poorer areas. There are a variety of reasons for this, lefty reverse snobbery from the districts the least of them.

Consequently, the kids feel special when they can learn a language and a history that is usually not available. They also get special attention by having an outside teacher come into the classroom and stay all year, even if it's only for two hours per week.

Furthermore, most Latin teachers will tell you that Latin as a language changes they way one thinks just by the way one formulates meaning. In fact, the other teachers at this school have noticed a difference between the way these children's approach language, although they haven't articulated exactly how.

This is our theory, anyway, and it seems clear from observation alone.

Can We Prove It?

What's the difference between a rationalization and a business case?


In order to demonstrate the outcome we've observed in ways that are persuasive to those who make high-level decisions in the educational community, we've got one assessment this year -- by Cambridge University. This is for one class of students.

Next year, we'll have many more classes, and consequently, much more data. We'll also have another assessment by Cambridge, one for leadership skills from a representative of the Duke Business Consortium, one by a lexicographer and linguist who edits an Oxford University Press dictionary, and one by the University of East London (where these kids would end up if they went to university at all).

Stay tuned, and let's see what happens . . . .

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Picking Up Where We Left Off . . . .

In the months between this post and the last, I've been helping to set up a business. The details aren't important per se, but it's now up and running.

New Horizons for Old Territory

I'm moving to London to spread the kind of educational spirit and strategy for which this blog was originally begun. As Executive Director of an organization called CASGE LLC, I will coordiante and develop an American educational consultancy whose focus next year, strangely enough, involve schools in England.

The Americans just weren't interested.

CASGE's Programs

Currently, we've got two kinds of programs going. The first is critical thinking across subject areas. Within this purview, I and my colleagues, particularly Geraldine Walkington and Sarah Mooney, will be working with teachers to integrate new ways of learning into the set curriculum. These include workshops for teachers, workshops for students, and a program named for the same Danish think tank as this blog -- The Learning Lab.

The Learning Lab offers students the opportunity to work with designers in industry, and we define design very broadly. Information design counts as does costing and arranging flowers. The idea is to give students confidence (Spar supermarkets chose three flower arrangements for Mother's Day bouquets nationally, for example) and to offer ideas of careers with which they might not otherwise be familiar.

Critical Thinking Through Classics

The other set of CASGE programs involve innovative thinking through the learning of Latin.

Those who haven't seen the program -- and know little about Latin -- find the focus a bit narrow and arcane. In fact, the results indicate a sharpening of the broadest range of skills, linguistic, creative, and analytic.

So far, Lorna Robinson has taught one program in one school in Hackney for one year. Two months ago, we had interest from five schools in the area. Next year, as Director of Classics Programs, she will be teaching in and helping to coordinate 23 classes in 12 schools.

More on this program in the next post.