Unknown Known

There are the known knowns; there are things we know we know.  We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.  But there are also unknown unknowns–there are things we do not know we don’t know. –Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush

Donald Rumsfeld made these comments in response to the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  He got a lot of flack and mockery for it (the flip-floppery of the words and their utter ridiculousness on the surface seemed to encapsulate the Bush White House response on everything, even if the core idea was valid) from an American people that were post 9/11 afraid, sitting on the cusp of a new, violent world.  As Iraq proved, there were plenty that we did not know we did not know.

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Nate Silver, the founder of the great sports, politics, and economics data site FiveThirtyEight, also wrote a pretty good (a bit long) book The Signal and the Noise.  It’s worth the read as it will make you think about data in new ways, and really question the assessments we do (and the assumptions we can and cannot make).  In the chapter “What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You” he looks at intelligence failures, including 9/11 and Iraq, and delves into the idea of the “knowns”.  The breakdown is interesting and important:

Known Knowns: You know the problem and have the answer.  You know you need enough chairs for your class to sit.  Thanks to a class list, you know how many kids will be in your class.

Known Unknown: You know the problem but do not have the answer.  This is the first day of class.  You know the material you have to cover.  Unknown are the skills students bring into the classroom: Can they even read the text you are counting on?  Unknown are the personalities: Do they like to learn or are their “issues”?  These questions x 1,000.  Schools combat this unknown with assessments and data; a good administration will give teachers access to databases or just include basic data in your class list (my first job included DRP scores and IEP designations with the list).  Elementary schools spend a lot of time crafting classroom balance when moving kids grades, and reporting on each child before the new teacher takes over.  High schools have more informal information exchanges, in the teachers’ room over coffee or, later, in a bar over drinks.  Schools recognize this problem and use data to solve it as much as they can (caffeine and alcohol are mere balms).

Unknown Unknown: “A contingency that we have not even considered,” writes Silver.  “We have some kind of mental block against it, or our experience is inadequate to image it; it’s as though it doesn’t even exist.” (421)  There is a reason we pay experienced teachers more.  If you’ve had a student teacher recently, or mentored a new one, you can see they have no idea what lies ahead.  Not only do new teachers not realize it can take fifteen minutes for a student to find a pencil, they have NO idea what the home life of many are and how unimportant Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is at that moment in time.  Who knew?  There is a reason so many teachers quit in the first three years.

* If we could get parents, school board members and others to teach for a month the entire tone around teacher negotiations would change.  There is nothing more frustrating (I would argue a microagression) than a non-teacher suggesting a lesson.  “If you would just….”  Thanks, no.

Unknown Known: As veteran and studied educators, we know the results but not the problems (we do make judgments, though–I used to blame middle school teachers for what my 9th graders couldn’t do, until I became a middle school teacher (I try not to blame the elementary teachers)).  I remember a few yeas ago, I got data showing that nearly 25% of my incoming students were illiterate.  Easily, one-third are below grade level.  That state is known.  The problem is not.

Silver does not talk about this–and I have no doubt I’m getting the binary wrong and this state of mental organization doesn’t even exist–but for me the “unknown known” seems to be the blind spot in education.  Instead of looking at a known problem (kids can’t read) and the unknown solution (Why?  How can we fix it?) we should be looking at how we got here.

The Difference and How It Helps

In our district, we are pushed to look at where the student is and solve the problem.  A student can’t read (known) we teach them how (unknown how, but solve it over 180 days).  That’s the school year in a nutshell.  Next year, repeat.

The problem is that it is reactive.  Ten (more?) years ago our district went full RtI (Response to Intervention).  For at least two school years (a lot time for many initiatives to last) we talked about using data (then, a new idea) to drive instruction (an even newer idea).  If Johnny did not know his alphabet, someone would take him aside and drill it; then he’d be with the class and ready to push on as an equal.  It is a great idea.  It reminds me of herding stray sheep to keep the whole alive.  We even got these great laminated folders that detailed much of the philosophy and protocol (I kept mine–it is so clear–while I’ve dumped my share of other such initiatives and supporting materials).  Unfortunately, RtI got watered down by the differentiation push that followed it.  Plus, because PBL (Performance Based Learning) had not yet happened, those teachers in the upper grades complained that their content was too complexly woven together to do a simple intervention (PBL and targets takes some of that argument away–just teach a focused Evidence group, for example, if that’s their weak spot).

The unknown known is not about the student in front of you.  It is about the path that brought them to this moment.  You know the result: one-third of my class struggled with literacy.   I don’t know the problem: For some reason, a large number of students could arrive at middle school without being able to read, but I don’t know why.  We have good teachers in the younger grades.  We have resources.  It is unknown how we got here.

In putting the unknown first (unknown known) we focus on the system, not the individual.  In this instance, I am not looking at my students but those who are coming up.  In theory, if I can know that unknown those coming into my class in future years will not have this issue–they will be able to read, and I can focus on bringing them up even higher.

The Power (and Blind Spots) of Linear Thinking

Semantics?  Perhaps.  But there is a lot to be said about linear thinking.  Our school is dogged by linear thinkers that cannot see the complex interconnectedness that is life (and teaching).  They often hold back discussions and real change because they cannot see how fixing C before B helps get to M–and we all get bogged down.  But linear also clarifies.  In thinking about what lead up to this moment, our solutions look to the future.

The question to ask is simple: How did we get here?  It is one we rarely have time to address because, teaching.  Those one-third in my classroom right now need me.  Those two-thirds need me, too.  Someone, though, needs to be thinking about how we got here.

But we know the unknown unknown (confused or just meta?).  Ten years ago, I sat in a Literacy Committee meeting and heard from the kindergarten about this group.  The next year, the first grade told us about them.  By the time the third grade teacher reported out about “this group” I asked what we were doing about it.  Nothing.  Blank stares.  Crickets.  Then, we threw extra resources at it.  They got better.  To the fourth grade teacher, this was problem: solution.  For me, though, that group was known but I had no idea why.  When they got to me, I knew plenty.

Root out those linear thinkers who bog down every other discussion and put them to work.  One a wall in a conference room put two lists: Cause and Effect.  The latter is what we know (literacy).  Charge them with solving the cause.

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The Follow Up: Interventions Often Need Interventions

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There is no silver bullet.  Change requires tweaking and digging until you get to the bone.  Be ready; it’s hard work.

Last week I wrote some idea of looking at data, in part use counterfactual questions.  In a counterfactual assessment you prove what is wrong, because it is easier than proving what is right.  For example, I can’t prove that coming to school daily works, but I can easily show that students who are tardy and miss a lot do poorly.

So, what do we know does not work?  What stops learning?  These questions came while reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.  Check out that post (Counterfactual Questioning of Data and Needs) here.

The working method behind counterfactual questioning is to continue to shed what does not work.  As a teacher or leader, I am sure you already know the kids the system is not working for.  And I am sure you know what areas are not working for them.

Why, then, do you continue with your system?

I will bet that the finger points to the kid, the family, or some other factor (poverty, tragedy, punkishness….)–but NOT the system in general.

When we adopt a pedagogy, we do so because we believe it will work.  It’s proven.  There’s data behind it–perhaps, even, from your school!  But, looking at your data now, you know it is not working for all students.

And you adapt.  And that does not work.  Or it doesn’t work for another group.    Or, the system is blamed and abandoned TOO SOON.  What you are doing, or some version of it, probably has many components that do work, but you have to adapt it to the students sitting in front of you.

I used the example of reading in that post, so let me focus on it again.  By putting SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) in the school we can focus more specifically on what does not work until it does (we control the environment, thus making it a nice little laboratory). Is it seating (move them), book selection (look at level and keep trying new titles), fluency ro eye tracking (Google Text to Speech)…. And as we take away what does not work we are left with nothing but reading.

Sherlock Holmes said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”  This is kind of like that–the second half of the process.  Once you stop trying to make your square peg fit the round hole, you’ll find a whole bunch of things that don’t work.  Great.  And as you try more, seemingly improbable solutions, you will find more that don’t work.  Until you hit on one that does work.  Pay dirt.

Start with your solid pedagogy.  You have to.  But, then, measure.  If it isn’t working, figure out why.  Then try something.  You might start with the old toolbox–why reinvent the wheel–but quickly throw the net wider.  As you do, you’ll get a sense of the student and why they aren’t succeeding.  Be Sherlock Holmes and find that improbable solution.

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All of that said, let me recommend Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle: A Lifetime of Learning About Writing, Reading and Adolescents.  In short, she promotes reading and writing workshops: Students work, and she offers mini-lesson and conferences.  Unlike current workshop queen Lucy Caulkins, Atwell’s program adapts, constantly.  The program fits the student.

Don’t worry if reading or writing or middle school is not your focus–the methods she employs works for any subject.  And she is honest about her journey finding these methods–she’s being doing for thirty years and is still refining.  Try to introduce a bit of it into your instruction.

 

 

Counterfactual Questioning of Data and Needs

9780812973815I have been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable after reading a Wikipedia article about Stephen Bannon and his influences.  This was one, and it made the news clearer in many ways.

It also showed me a different way of using the data we are now getting almost too much of.  Here are a few interesting take-aways as how I might look at data new–and use it moving forward.

1. Look at the outliers.  When we focus on what works, or decide that it does not work, we often don’t really look at who falls short.  We look at the bulk–the middle kids–and evaluate the program based on them.  Then, we look at how we can “fix” the others to fit into the system which (we think) works.  Or blame them for their shortcomings.

It becomes about fitting a square peg into a round hole.

For some, we intervene with Tier II or even go EST (Educational Support Team), if they don’t already have IEPs or a 504.  For others, we explain it away (often with history–they’ve always done that–or other–family issues, anxiety, a bad day….) which is another version of blame-the-kid.  But if 20% of the group is not succeeding, how can we call a program a success?  (FYI, I’ve seen programs at 40% success declared working, because you have to understand…)  And if the response is that those 20% get something different, a) does that work, b) is that the best use of resources, and c) is that best for all kids?

One concern about any program outside of the normal program is measuring effectiveness of that intervention.  Often, if the intervention works–great work–but if it fails the child we find excuses with the child.  Honestly, once a kid falls to Tier II or Tier III they stay there.  (There is little incentive to change that, but that’s addressed later).  So the first step needs to be coupled with….

2. Tailor the group to the outliers.  While a program should not revolve around a single student, are there changes that would help other students as well?  For example, in the talks about anxiety our school did the presenters sold the idea that such interventions help other students.  True.  Compared to our childhood, we no longer time tests while we do allow movement breaks, reteach, and incorporate a dozen other techniques that began with outlier kids and are now mainstream.  But what is required is….

3. Thinking of needs outside the standard toolbox.  My students, for example, started the year talking about needing “hands on” learning (whatever that means).  Then, it was movement breaks.  Then, social time.  All of these were valid, but they did not really have an idea of what they needed.  Instead, our team read between the lines and gave them what they actually needed.  But even then, our responses were pretty standard (more projects, less seat work).  And, we are having a difficult time with a different outlier group (we are working on working independently, working with peers, time management and other, new issues).

Recently, we have looked at other needs.  We have a few kids questioning their identity (sexual orientation, interests, even their given name).  We have several kids with family issues–really worried about their family, illnesses, moving, relationships and the like.  We can see with after school groups that a desire for identity and connection exists.  A social survey with gave students showed a desire for help with peers and impulse control.  What to do with that?  We are currently looking beyond the wisely constructed groupings to regroup with needs, and soft-sell the focus bringing them together now.

But we aren’t counselors and this is not a therapy session.  Our goal is academics.  Plus, there are other needs and other solutions.  For example, in 2014 I found that what moved scores was participation in a competitive activity (AAU, Mini Metro, Far Post, ballet…).  There are a number of needs, many you don’t see because our students are faces in a specific location and a data point (go out to recess or the common spaces and see them differently).  So, we find that need by….

4. Ask counterfactual questions.  In a counterfactual assessment you prove what is wrong, because it is easier than proving what is right.  For example, I can’t prove that coming to school daily works, but I can easily show that students who are tardy and miss a lot do poorly.

So, what do we know does not work?  What stops learning.  Time is a general issue.  Interruptions are more pressing.  Homework does not really help those we want it to help.  But what the homework issue shows us is that time is needed–to read, for example.  When we do get kids to read at home, they get better at reading.  Now, we don’t know if that is due to attitude or practice or what.  But by putting SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) in the school we can focus on that.  For those who is does not work, why?  Seating (move them), book selection (look at level and keep trying new titles), fluency (Google Text to Speech)….  And as we take away what does not work we are left with reading.  But you need to ask….

5. Instead of asking what they need, ask what they don’t need and shed it.  Does a student who reads all of the time need SSR?  They might like it, or it may serve a calming function, but it does not add much to the academic purpose of SSR for them.  Found time.  They might, though, need that calming function–can it be given more effectively (offer meditation or counseling)?  Or, when their non-needs are whittled away, what’s left?  You can ask this of the student who gets instrument lessons outside of school (why do they still get school lessons?), the kid who plays Mini-Metro during the basketball unit (is relearning how to dribble worth their time?), and so on.  And we know who is lacking–we can tick it off the top of our head.  We have a list ready of what is not working.

A simple example is leadership.  We say we need it.  In our school, we have a group of intelligent athletes who think leadership is getting their way, instead of making their peers look better and rise up together.  They pick the team, have the ball, take the shot, and are ready with the excuse of why X didn’t get the ball (“They aren’t very good.”)  They are teachers waiting to be shown how.  If they teach X, that kid X will get the ball.  A simple pivot around the data sets that up–Kid A is measured on basketball skills and Kid B is measured on his teaching others.

6. And before you talk about time, think about how much time we spend accommodating, chasing down a few kids, and adapting work.  Differentiation is hard and time consuming and still we have failure–because we differentiate the wrong thing.  Use data to find the right thing, but cutting back everything that does not work.

Of course, this is still turning around in my head.  But it might cause you to think about things differently as you approach configuration, schedule and PBL in the next month in anticipate of the next school year.

Everything Old is New Again: Three Books from the 1950s that Solve Our Nation’s Present Problems

A shorter piece on “Why Johnny Can’t Read” is posted elsewhere.  Throughout the Bush years I could only think about these books, and when I reread them I not only wondered if anyone in the administration had read them, but if any of the press or policy wonks had, either.  A day does not go by where I do not read some adviser or other put forth part of the puzzle that these three had pushed years before.  Bradbury is more of a prophecy than a road map, and so I end with it.

Everything Old is New Again

Three Books from the 1950s That Solve Our Nation’s Present Problems

If you browse the shelves of a sad used bookstore you will find all of the bestsellers from your parents bookshelves. Among the faded copies of The Thorn Birds and Kon-Tiki, long ago vetted from more upscale used bookstore shelves, will be political tracts, whose authors made the rounds of news programs and talk shows, and whose ideas were held up to the light—and then forgotten. You know their names, but probably have never read them: Why Johnny Can’t Read, The Ugly American, andFahrenheit 451. Three books written in the 1950s demand at least a reread, and at best offer solutions to the three biggest issues facing America today: education, foreign policy, and control of our nation’s culture.

Why Johnny Can’t Recede

One measure of the impact of a cultural event or artifact is its catchphrase being perversely appropriated by any and all completely unrelated causes. From the suffix -gate to the got milk? campaign the sign of success in America is shameless exploitation. Unlike where’s the beef? the title of Rudolf Flesch’s classic Why Johnny Can’t Read is a chestnut that will not die. Still, while the phrase why Johnny can’t…. lives on fifty years after its publication, most educators are completely unfamiliar with the book.

Johnny promotes phonics. Actually, to say that Johnny promotes phonics is to say that Ahab did not like Moby Dick. It does not simply make a case for phonics, but lays down a persuasive argument that obliterates all but the strongest critics. It is a mind shattering read that will shake its reader’s belief about current reading strategies, or make them very, very angry.

It is shocking that those who push phonics have let Johnny gather dust. True, the research is now quite dated—it may not have been convincing at the time—but the force of the argument is crushing. Attempts to refer to it in modern texts miss the full impact of Flesch’s ardent, seething build. The Perennial paperback edition describes it as an “angry, practical book”; two words few people would ever put together. While its useful side consists of simple phonics exercises, it is the rage that sold the book.

Why revisit it? A fifty year old book whose persuasive argument is based on even older research, much of which he attacks, still resonates. Can it? It is the passion that demands the return.

Dear Mary

These two words begin the book. Flesch begins his tract with a letter to Johnny’s mother, who had hired him to teach her son. An emotional touch that allows him to introduce himself to the reader hat in hand (You know that I was born and raised in Austria, he writes on the second page—if she knows, why repeat it?), Flesch quickly abandons any pretense of it being an actual letter because Mary is us. By confiding in us as he would any sympathetic parent he now rallies against the other that is the educational establishment. And it works!

Quickly, Flesch lays out a wide reaching history of language that concludes that the faddish reading system of the fifties is like turning back the clock 3,000 years to the Age of Hammurabi, or learning Chinese—all argued in three pages.

It is on the fifth page that the passionate craze begins. Even as his frustration builds towards fury his punctuation remains a dull period. Wiley as a evangelical preacher, he baits his arguments with questions that he knows the answer to. Every paragraph starts to have a questioning sentence:

You don’t believe me?

You know what that means?

So what does he get instead?

Not until the fifth page, though, does Flesch really unleash the stylistic tricks. He uses his first exclamation point! His language up to this point assumed one, but he has craftily waited until now to use it. Every word in the language! is his indignant summation of the previous paragraph. The tone, already disdainful, turns to mocking. He uses contemptuous quotation marks, as in, used with the exactly “right” amount of repetition—you can practically see his fingers making the gesture as he speaks to the typewriter.

All the while he is weaving the text with learned historical references and titles of the classics. Finally, he unleashes his wrathful vocabulary in answer to the question of what Johnny gets as an alternative to Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott or Bulfinch.

So what does he get instead? He gets those series of horrible, stupid, emasculated, pointless, tasteless little readers, the stuff and guff about Dick and Jane or Alice and Jerry visiting farms and having birthday parties and seeing animals in the zoo and going through dozens and dozens of totally unexciting middle-class, middle-income, middle-I.Q. children’s activities that offer opportunities for reading “Look, look” or “yes, yes” or “Come, come” or “See the funny, funny animal.”

He had us at Dear Mary, but this seals the deal. From there he takes punches at the usual targets of greedy publishing houses and ivory towered academics—sometimes at the same time. He writes to his rhetorical question, Who writes these books? The reply, Naturally, the stupendous and frighteningly idiotic work on concocting this stuff can only be done by tireless teamwork of many educational drudges. Who can argue that writing what he calls a “textbook” is not drudgery?

This kick in the teeth is why Johnny is still relevant to anyone who cares about how reading is taught. One problem is that we no longer believe that our public schools can do the job. Parents demanding change from the school board, the major thrust for change, are being replaced by parents demanding vouchers. As the repercussions of NCLB kick in, those parents who traditionally would have pounded their fists insisting on changes are now being bought off. It is not the best students who will be skimmed from the public schools, but the most active parents. The naysayers have no vision, but simply want to flee.

As Johnny ages past fifty it seems odd that no one has picked up Flesch’s torch—not of phonics, but of passionate belief in the power of education. Flesch believed in education. For all of his protest, bluster and rant Flesch supported public education. As an immigrant he knew that in a country founded on equality and opportunity our public school system has been the bedrock foundation for which these values have long rested. More important, Flesch laid out not only criticism of reading programs from his era, but also a solution. It was not only well thought out, but quite detailed. Indeed, the last sixty pages offer exercises for parents to supplement what Flesch felt should be taught in schools.

Why can’t all of the critical Johnnies do that today?

The Uglier American

First published in 1958, The Ugly American became a catchphrase that also took a life of its own. Like Johnny, the catchphrase came to mean something different than the original work, leaving everyone into thinking they had read the book, or got the gist of it, from the phrase itself.

They were wrong.

Co-written by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick, the book is a collection of stories woven together around the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan. Each story offers a specific illustration of how people use their skills and resources for a positive change, or how self-centered, short sighted ignorance undermines native people’s natural goodwill for America. And while each story has a certain “duh” quality in the strategy’s obviousness, they are oddly inspirational in their subtle complexity. By the end of the book you want to slap every White House, DOD or state department talking head with a copy of it.

There are several minor stories, ranging from adventure seeking secretaries to wise-but-overruled military men, but the tale of Homer Atkins, the “ugly American” himself, is typical. Described as “ugly” because his nails are dirty from working with his hands, those same hands have built him a multi-million dollar business back in Philadelphia. In Vietnam as a consultant to large engineering projects, he disappoints handsome-but-incompetent government officials by suggesting decidedly low tech ones instead. Asked by the progressive ambassador to Sarkahan, Gilbert MacWhite, the one thread holding the book together, Atkins solves a water transportation problem using local resources.

But it is his method that piques our interest.

Atkins wants to turn a profit. Kind hearted by no Peace Corp volunteer, Atkins wants to help the locals but also recognizes that only a profit motive will sustain any permanent change. His native protégé, Jeepo (a.k.a. the “Ugly Sarkhanese), says, “…on the ones (pumps) we make, we deserve the profit. That is the way of working men.” Later, Jeepo, quotes Atkins to his sales force saying, “one of the best things that can happen to engineers like yourself is to be allowed to sell what they make.” And he is not an isolated case. The book starts with the story of John Colvin, a Wisconsin OSS operative-cum diary farmer who introduces dried milk as a profitable protein source. By the end of the book both are prospering, as is Sarkhan. In the end, it is a bootstrap Republican aid package.

It all sounds like the stories of microloans told during the lead-up to Mohammad Yumas and the Grameen Bank being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year. These loans have gone mostly to women, and the life-changing capability of funding bamboo furniture production or a cell phone to link a rural village to the world for a profit has been well documented. If it works in Bangledesh and countries without our help, why can it not work in nations we really, really want to pacify?

Unlike Why Johnny Can’t Read, where practice and success of reading strategies is still being debated, the lessons from The Ugly American have played out again and again, most notably in our failures in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. And while cultural empathy and understanding are liberal boilerplates, Lederer and Burdick have made a sound case for those traits that make the world look to America despite our hapless blunders.

The Book About Burning Books

Out of these three, Fahrenheit 451 is probably the one book you have read, albeit in junior high school. When you read it, you focused on the irony of firemen burning things, mostly books, and the theme that great ideas are dangerous to social order. This is what you wrote a paper on, at least, or wrote on the quiz.

And that is all you can remember.

Now that books seem quaint, and buying them is more of a activity surrounding gift giving than actual cultural relevance, “Fahrenheit 451″ is a phrase used to impose images of fascism. Orwell corners the general market on references of totalitarian rule, with 1984 offering phases like “big brother” and “newspeak”, and having child story suggesting Animal Farm lend quotes to drop like, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Yet Fahrenheit 451 and author Ray Bradbury is evoked when the arts are involved. The first line, “It ws a pleasure to burn” sums up the desire of those in power to destroy the word of truth.

And if that is all you can remember, all the more the pity.

Bradbury might have seen books as a physical savior of society, but his portrait of television, violence and youth was fifty years ahead of its time. These ideas are the ones that are forgotten, even by those who read the book.

The radical of the book is a teen age girl Clarisse McClellan. Barely a character, she is a foil for everyone else. While everyone is focused on things, she is enlivened by nature. Her family does not own a television, while the protagonist, a fireman named Guy Montag, is married to Mildred, a woman who feels deprived because her television does not have a fourth wall. While Clarisse talks of ideas, Montag’s wife cannot remember the plots of her shows and is incapable of having a conversation. We are introduced to Mildred after she has overdosed on pills, which too handymen with a machine clean her out of for fifty bucks, while Clarisse is killed by a car (although a definitive end is never said).

And that car.

Society breaking into a bored violence is the point that many people miss when reading Bradbury. It seems that, without arts and literature and only the drivel of television, life becomes cheap. Teens amuse themselves when they go to the Fun Park to, “bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with a big steel ball. Or go out in the cars and race on the streets, trying to see how close you can get to lampposts, playing ‘chicken’ and ‘knock hubcaps’. She says, “I’m afraid of child my own age. They kill each other… Six friends have been shot in the last year alone. Ten of the died in wrecks.” And then she disappears, but not before acting as a wake up call to Guy Montag.

There is an overriding boredom in Bradbury’s world.

While dystopian overabundant societies are many in movies and literature, Bradbury’s conceits are simple acts of blandness. There is no running man as a modern bread and circus, designed to distract the population from the state. Mildred is excited because she has been chosen to perform in one of the teleplays. The script has been sent to her, and the characters speak their lines and pause for hers. But, unlike Winston Smith’s television in 1984, they cannot see her and the tape is unaware when she fumbles her lines and the play moves on without her. Still, to Mildred, it is the one moment she feels alive; that she belongs.

If everything sounds, well, done before it is Bradbury’s understated presentation of the world that makes this dystopian novel more current than Orwell and Aldous Huxley’s hedonistic Brave New World. It is not about what can happen, but the now. This is why we think of Fahrenheit 451 as being about burning books; our voting for America’s next singing idol or survivor distracts us from seeing more.

Two of the titles—Why Johnny Can’t Read and The Ugly American—have gone in and out of print, while Fahrenheit 451 continues to be a middle and high school staple. The subject you want to be upset most about is the way to chose which book to start with, but be ready to push the discussion beyond catchphrase at your next social gathering.

The Business of Educating Children: Four Business Books for Educators

he Business of Educating Children

At a recent meeting, one mother, to bolster her argument, turned to the teachers in the room and exclaimed that the parents were the school’s customers and that the customer was always right.

Never mind that this cliché is rarely honored by American businesses, it is a statement that demonstrates how distant we are the days when communities came together in the name of the whole child.

It is not that business jargon has trickled its way into education—the two have a long entangled history—but that its players are adopting roles traditionally reserved for business. Parents as customers is an obvious one, but a lot of principals and superintendents describe themselves as managers, teachers discuss their role as workers, and students are simply seen as product. In the worse extremes, schools are described as “learning factories” or “warehouses”. The trend indicates a frustration communities feel with their roles in our current education system.

Still, there is much educators can learn from business.

While many a teacher, administrator, school board member or parent might reach for the latest book on pedagogy in addressing issues with their schools, they might find more inspiration in the business section of their local bookstore, instead. The following four books are a great place to start.

The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker

While U.S. politicians loudly shout how schools need to be run more like a business, American businesses are not doing too well. How can the local elementary school expect to get in shape, for example, when the once mighty big three automakers scratch their heads while in free fall? Easy: look towards Toyota.

While the labored concept of Total Quality Management has been grafted onto nearly any endeavor, most often as a gimmicky fad, Toyota has taken the basic concept and made it their own.  That alone—their willingness to experiment and commit to the concept over the long haul—is what makes Toyota a model for educators.

The Toyota Production System (TPS) was created after the company’s founder Sakichi Toyoda, his son and an engineer visited the Ford Motor Company. Unimpressed with the waste and inefficiency they saw throughout Ford’s plants, they found inspiration at a local Piggly Wiggly supermarket. There, inventory was restocked and reordered only when items sold. Drawing heavily on the works of Henry Ford and economist W. Edwards Deming, concepts such as Lean Manufacturing and Just In Time inventory systems were born.

TPS has several components, many of which are very subtle, but it boils down to a few basic concepts.

First, waste is bad. The elimination of waste, from supplies to time, is the foundation of TPS. Look, for example, at your students’ schedule. When the minutes are added up, students often spend more time passing from class to class than they spend in art class each week.

Second, question each part of the process. Does the daily battle over a student without a pencil distract and waste time or stress the importance of responsibility? That answer depends on the overall focus of that school.

Third, turn every employee into a quality control inspector. Change the word employee to student, parent, teacher and community member. The trick is to empower them, something too often given only lip service to. When all members are empowered, the loud complainers tend to get pushed aside by good, helpful ideas.

Most important, TPS stresses the long term outlook. What will students be learning in five, ten, fifteen years? Since students pass through a single district over thirteen years, this makes sense. Unfortunately, administrators, school boards and (in some schools) teachers do not seem to last that long. The constant assault of new, sexy teaching philosophies can make this element near impossible.

Liker and David Meier wrote a companion book The Toyota Way Fieldbook, designed to help people implement the philosophical concepts discussed in The Toyota Way. At its best, The Toyota Way confirms that the annoyances and weaknesses of your school is not a natural state, but systemic. That means it can be changed, which, in itself, is heartening to know.

The One Minute Manager by Kenneth H. Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

Having turned every student, parent and teacher into a quality control inspector, how does a manager get the hard work of student learning done?

In short, the one minute manager of the title sets clear, measurable and inspired goals.

He or she then, after some initial planning, makes it the responsibility of the person below them to accomplish the goal. As a mentoring teacher once told me when I was stressing about prepping for a project, make the student do the work. The “one minute” part refers to quick praising and reprimands to keep things on course.

Told as a parable, The One Minute Manager book can be read in a single sitting.

There is nothing radical here, save for the simple idea that education only works in the hands of the students. Active learning, as opposed to passive receiving, is not only effective for the students, but takes a lot of the burden off of over-extended teachers. For those who feel they spend more time writing comments on papers than the student did writing it, this book is a necessity.

Do not let the word “manager” distract you. This book is perfect for anyone from parents to administrators. Even students working in groups would benefit from a refocus of their role in the project’s learning goals.

This is not to be confused with The One Minute Teacher, also by Johnson. Johnson more recently had great success with his Who Moved My Cheese title and its spin-offs. There are dozens of “One Minute” offshoot books, including The One Minute Golfer, which dovetail off of the original’s basic premise. Copies of copies tend to be blurry; go to the original.

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

If you have not heard of this book, chances are you have heard of Wikipedia.

The basic concept is that collective knowledge is smarter than the all knowing individual.

How does it apply to education? How doe sit not!

A teacher stands at the board and lectures to a class of intelligent-yet-unappreciated students. Instead, use student knowledge and interest to guide the class. No longer just quality control inspectors, they are now solving the problems raised by the community.

Surowiecki focuses on four elements of the wise crowd: diversity of opinion, independence of members from one another, decentralization, and a good method for aggregating opinions. Each of these essentials becomes harder to come by in the classroom than the one before it, but with a little work students—too often overlooked as a resource—can be the engine for great classroom learning.

Or teachers! Schools spend millions to have these educational professionals in their employment, and thousands more to continue their education, only to lock them in an isolated classroom while the administration and school board hash out policy decisions. When systems are created that tap this knowledge base, schools win not only in the ideas generated, but the investment of its faculty.

Guerrilla Marking by Jay Conrad Levinson

Marketing and education seem not just incongruous, but distasteful together. The term brings the revulsion that the parent referring to themselves as customers did. But if education is as much about inspiration as knowledge—and most educational theories agree that it is—understanding authentic marketing may be the key to motivating organizations towards student learning.

More than any of the other business books mentioned, Levinson focuses on the nuts and bolts of business. This is not a theoretical tract, but a focused guide on getting your company product into the hands of customers via marketing. For this reasons alone Guerrilla Marketing makes this list.

Levinson focuses on small business and low budgets. Instead of money, an organization’s resources are time, energy and imagination. He writes that an acute focus on excellence, not diversified offerings, leads to success. Also, organizations should use a combination of methods for any campaign.

If you substitute a small school with a strapped budget, a pedagogy based in educational psychology, a resourceful community, high standards on the basics and differentiated learning Levinson could be speaking to educators. Unlike books about those topics, though, is his ability to shatter the box that holds traditional thinking. If anything, Guerrilla Marketing is so energetic that it forces you to defend everything you do. Unlike many books, he does not push a particular plan, but the ideas that any plan must have to succeed.

If you are open minded enough to use business books for an educational organization, Levinson will stimulate some important questions in how you proceed.

Schools as Models

Of course, there is no end of business titles that can be applies to learning. From Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point to Scott Adam’s Dilbert cartoons there is a business book to explain any phenomenon, or give advice for any situation.

What these four books have in common is that they expand the circle. Unlike schools, which can limp along, business must succeed or they die. It is why politicians and parents like to employ them as metaphors. If applied to schools, these books focus on educators being facilitators for learning. Students become active engines of learning, not products to be inventoried, while the community of parents, administrators, teachers and citizens serve as a collective resource guiding the outcome.

To be honest, for all of the bad publicity that schools receive there is a lot going well.

Now, if only businesses looked to its schools as a model we all might be buying American again.