Thursday, November 7, 2013

Why Teaching Doesn't Work

"I am beginning to think, O Govinda, that there is no such thing as learning...No one is granted deliverance through a teaching!"

-Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse

Schooling has been heading in the wrong direction for a long time. It's ill-conceived to begin with, but in an effort to fix things, they've become more mixed up. The chance to spend a few hours a day pursuing an education should be enriching and it should spark curiosity, not kill it. The measure of our students, through grading and testing, is, essentially, this: how much has the student lost of herself and become what we expect them to be? Nothing is more important to a student--in our current system--than that they evolve on an arbitrary schedule to reflect an arbitrary set of skills and knowledge.

I am a writing professor. It is, I assure you, the greatest job in the world. I get to work with students on their words and, through them, I learn a bit about their lives and experiences; I gain insight into my own writing and into my own life. Most of my students work hard improve their writing throughout the semester and improve their own critical thinking skills--one of our primary goals in the course. This makes me happy because it is rewarding.

One thing I never do, unless I absolutely have to in order for them to pass the class, is instruct them. I do not tell them what to write, I do not tell them how to write it, and I do not tell them how or what to think. I am here to help them, I am here to show my experiences and let them air their own, and I am here to focus their work on improvement. But I don't tell them how--I do not "teach" them.

Throughout school, students are exposed to many subjects. There are certain skill sets and core knowledge bases that students are expected to accomplish in order to consider themselves educated. And, ultimately, we measure their performance, stratify their accomplishments, and grant them the one thing that no one can be granted except themselves: an education.

If I bake a cake from a box, I do not become a better baker. But if I am exposed to ingredients, learn about textures and temperatures and flavors, then I can begin to construct a cake that goes much deeper. Maybe some of my early cakes will suck--but that shouldn't effect my grade as a baker, it should be expected.  It shouldn't be measured. In the end, when I can bake a cake that is original and wonderful, then grade me. And I will be that much closer to being a baker.

So why should I teach my students to write cake box essays?

I can show students the outline of an essay. I can give them the plug-and-play version. Here is your thesis, here are where your points go, now support those points, and then bring us back to the top. This may produce better writing (be it boring), but it does not produce better writers.

You cannot instruct students to learn. You cannot force it. Hell, you cannot even accurately measure it beyond certain subjective criteria that we try to make as objective as possible. Learning, true learning, comes from self-motivated students who are interested in what they are learning and make it part of their own experience.

No one taught me how to write. Critique me how you will, I am a writer and that cannot be taken away from me. It cannot be taken away from me because no one gave it to me. When my teachers taught how to make an outline, I ignored it. When my teachers showed me where to put the parts of a sentence, I spaced-out. When my teachers told me how to engage an audience, I nodded my head. I wrote and got whatever grade the teacher would give me. But my satisfaction was within myself, not within that single, lonely letter.

If I did get an A, which was reasonably often, I felt like a fraud; I had fooled the teacher, I thought, into thinking I had done this "correctly," when, in fact, I didn't. I didn't outline. I didn't draft a thesis first. I didn't even plan. It took me a long time to realize that what I was doing was legit because I was a writer. Writing doesn't have a right and wrong way. It has many.

There were teachers who helped me make some things better. There were teachers who inspired me. There were teachers who exposed me to wonderful books and fascinated tales from history. But I was impervious to instruction.

This is the way of students and learning: they must find it within themselves. Otherwise, they will adopt a skill or set of knowledge only to dump it later. Neuroscience teaches us that 90% of what a student "learns" in class is lost within six months. 90%. Experiences are never lost.

The fact is dead. Students today carry around a bank of facts in the palm of their hands.They carry the depth and width of human knowledge in a computer bank more extensive than a single human's consciousness can be at their age. Do not teach them facts to regurgitate on exams. It is useless. Teach them, instead, how to manage and deploy that knowledge; how to apply it. We can only do that by providing educational experiences and dropping the fallacy of grading and measuring. We are heading in the wrong direction.

There must be a paradigm shift. We must move schools and colleges out of the dark ages of the instructional paradigm and toward the light of the learning paradigm.  We need to wake students up to themselves and stop alienating them and placing a value on them. Let their curiosity provide rabbit holes to jump through and let them see the magic of what granting yourself an education can be.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Why You Should Participate in NaNoWriMo

November seems to be the month that is designated for designating for things. It's Special Month Awareness Month, or something. It's No Shave November, Mo-vember, Fire Awareness Month, Lupus Awareness Month, Shelter Dog Adoption Month, Bully Prevention Month, and Breast Cancer Awareness Month, among, no doubt, many others. It's also National Novel Writing Month, and that's what I want to talk about.

Here's the rub of it: You should write a book.

We live in a world of consumers. You and I are consumers. Americans watch 4-6 hours of television a day. Nearly every waking hour is spent with a screen of some kind in our face. Mostly, a screen means consumption--we are consuming someone else's thoughts, moods, attitudes, research, jokes, and pictures of their lunch, to boot. We can spend our lives this way very easily. And that's fine, if that's what you want. But it's also purely decadent in a way that no society throughout history has ever been decadent before.

No one before our time spent so many countless hours being passively entertained.

I was standing at a red light earlier today. The light had just turned red and there were a group of six or seven college students waiting to cross the street from a Starbucks to the college. The red light lasts, I don't know, 45 seconds? Something like that. And what do these students do as the light turns red? Every one of them, without fail, every single one of them, pulls out their cell phone and looks at something. Maybe it's Facebook. Maybe Instagram. Maybe their logging into their email. The point is, they couldn't be bothered to sit and wait for 45 seconds without the company of their screen--without being fed by something.

National Novel Writing Month offers you a distinct opportunity: stop being fed and start feeding.

Don't be a consumer all the time, be a producer, too.

You probably know as many people as I do who say, "I'm going to write a book someday." And who knows what they're waiting for? To get to be a better writer? To have more interesting experiences? Don't wait for those things. You want to be a better writer? Start writing. Just imagine how much better you will be after writing 50,000 words in a few weeks. You want to have more interesting experiences? Put down the little screen and take an interest in the experiences you already have. It's that simple.

There are other ways to produce. Draw pictures, play music, put on a play. But there is nothing simpler, cheaper, or more involving than writing a book. Do those other things, too. Or do them instead of writing a book. Whatever. But start doing something! Stop waiting!

There's an easy way to get motivated that speaks to the consumer mentality in an effective way. Start a profile on There you can log your word count, post excerpts, connect with other writers, and find some good advice on not stopping.

Have something to point to and say, "There, I've done that." Stop waiting. And enjoy it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dealing with Too Much Halloween Candy

I have to tell you, Internet, I don't have a lot of answers for this one. But let's feel things out on the page and see if anything springs up.

I love Halloween. I really and truly do. I love the specials, I love the costumes, I love the pumpkin gutting and carving, and I love the candy. It has always been, more or less, my favorite holiday. When I was little, I couldn't believe the sanctioned action of getting free candy. It was an amazing thing--just walking around and getting it for free, not having to work for it, and, in fact, getting to dress up as whatever you want while doing so. Could there be anything better?

I got older and realized that free candy kind of really isn't a big deal. I mean, sure, that's nice and all, but candy is pretty cheap and I can really only take so much of it any more. I can pretty much go and buy all the candy I could possibly want for five bucks. It would last me a month. Not quite free, but pretty damn accessible.

I really liked it when you got the really good stuff. Kids were always talking about that "one" house in their cousin's neighborhood where they gave out full-size candy bars. They acted like it was a euphoric experience to be handed a full-on adult version of the candy being handed out. I knew that these stories were mostly bull. And even if they were true, big deal. just go to a couple extra houses and collect two or three more fun size bars, if you don't get a full size one (the "fun" size is also bull. I mean, is fun really diminutive? My analyzation of that nomenclature was probably my first encounter with the number one rule of marketing: always tell the exact opposite of the truth in order to sell something).

To top it all off, every year, my grandma would send us each a bag of candy, and just the good stuff. The Snickers and the Butterfingers and the Three Musketeers and the Kit-Kats and the little mini Hershey family. A whole bag, each kid, their own, on top of trick-or-treating.

My brother and I would go on a candy rampage. My dad trusted us to check our packages for razor blade and/or poison entry wounds. We would eat candy all night long.We would have candy for breakfast the next day. We would go nuts. And we would store secret stashes of candy from each other, hidden away until Christmas, just to make sure that we didn't finish our haul before the other one did.

This was great, from my childish mind. But as an adult, I can't stand it. I can't stand the influx of all of this candy, mainly because it makes my kids impossible.

If they have a couple pieces of candy too many, they can't sleep. If their hunger for candy is sated, they beg for more. If they are given free reign, they make themselves sick--literally. And all of this falls on our shoulders to deal with. I don't remember my brother and sisters being such a pain in the ass to my parents. Our candy intake was unstoppable, unbegged for, and unregulated. But these days, my kids having so much candy just makes a clusterfuck of issues that I have to unravel and suffer through.

What do I do? Be the jerk dad who constantly regulates or even takes away Halloween candy? Do I let them go for it and batten down the hatches? In a house with four kids, nothing is so protected and holy as the right to a good nights sleep--it dictates the potential of every single day.

Something we thought of: buying their candy from them. Giving them a preset amount of coin for each piece. Or buying the whole bag for a bunch of money. But does this intrude on the sanctity of the tradition? Or does this reinforce the place of money as sacred in their lives?

I would love to hear how others deal with this. Or how others don't deal with this. Fire away in the comments, if you'd be so kind.

Monday, October 28, 2013

A Princess is not a Good Halloween Costume

One of the first Halloweens I ever experienced as an active participant, I picked to be Boba Fett from The Empire Strikes Back. This baffled my parents, as they did not understand how a character that has around a minute of screen time could capture my imagination so well (and little did I know that I was being a Disney character from the future!). But I have to give myself some props for that choice--yes, it was reflective of popular culture and yes, the costume came out of a box, but I was being something that I found inspiring but that was ultimately someone I would never want to be: a bounty hunter, a killer, the very "bad guy" that had outwitted my favorite "good guy" of the times, Han Solo.

As I've mentioned before, Halloween is a ceremony of reversals; a time when kids are invited to explore the side of humanity that is not embraced by the wider society. By indulging in our darker side, letting it out, feeling what it's like to even pretend to be the "bad guy" for a night, we allow ourselves the choice: we are not bad guys because we choose not to be bad guys, not because society tells us it's wrong. We feel what it's like to know that we can embody these bad guy tendencies, we know that we have a capacity for it, and we reject it out of our own free will. This is powerful stuff.

But this is not the attitude of the machine that currently markets Halloween. Instead, we see the most popular costumes every recent years are what the kids want to be, not what they want to dare to be. For boys, Spider Man generally clocks in at number one, with "super hero" coming in at number two or three. The generic term "princess" leads the list every year, and usually the second or third most popular for girls is "Disney Princess." While there are some "bad guy" favorites peppered in, like pirates or ninjas, even a general perusal of any Halloween store or display will show the prevalence of commercially successful "good guys."

Two of my daughters this year are being Minnie Mouse. She's benign enough, I suppose, and is someone who has captured their minds since our recent move to Southern California (I would have preferred something else, but I was glad enough they both weren't Cinderella [and, for the record, Indiana Jones and a parrot round out the other two girls]). We spent some time in a Disney Store while gathering the proper Minnie Mouse ingredients and I noticed something: a girl can get from a Disney Store the costume for just about any princess, but there are no villains. None. No Ursula, no Maleficent, no poison apple wielding Wicked Witch Stepmother, no dragons. Sure, a boy (or girl) can choose Captain Hook, but he's the closest that Disney will come to a bad guy. You can make the argument that Disney's research teams know that the good guys will sell better, but this limit of choices directs children toward the proper branding of Disney values, and this leads to a better customer in the future. You don't have to believe me, but that's where their money is going and why it's going that way, so you might as well.

Dressing as a good guy for Halloween, or even your role model, may seem like a good idea. And I'm sure it won't make your kids evil or anything. But the drive to be pretty is instilled in us enough, do we really have to use Halloween as another venue for that? Does a young girls need another avenue for feeling like glamor is adult and desirable and linked to her value? Look at where this leads in the world of young adult Halloweens: The "slutty-everything" costume.

The slutty-everything costume is just another dark insight into our looks-obsessed society. We use a holiday to be validated, to dress in a way that we normally wouldn't (or, maybe, would) so that we can feel approval from friends and strangers (now, arguably, the slutty-everything costume fits into the ceremony of reversals paradigm, but that's only if the person doesn't usually indulge in approval mongering). The precursor to this can be none other than the princess costume--to get approval of the glamorous and beautiful looks of a full-grown princess.

Now, I don't damn the practice and, as I said before, not dressing up as something evil doesn't make your child evil (or, if it does, I'm not qualified to say so, so you shouldn't listen to me if I do say something like that, dude). But we as parents should encourage the cutting of sheets for ghosts and the dawning of conical hats for our little witches and the wielding of sabres in our small pirates. There are so many other days a year to reinforce the superficial values of society; there are so many other days a year to preach the goodness of super heroes and firefighters and the bravery of soldiers. Let them howl at the moon, let them drink blood, let them outsmart Han Solo, let them be briefly empowered by the darker side of what makes us human. If we do not feel and reject that darker side, are we truly human? Or are we just another product on the assembly line?