Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Prof. Daniel Willingham: "Reading is not a skill."

Daniel Willingham is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia who is "interested in the application of what's known about the mind to K-12 teaching," as he puts it on his YouTube channel. Prof. Willingham created quite a conversation in the online education community with his most recent column in the Washington Post: "Reading is not a skill," as in, reading cannot be taught as a skill in isolation from content.
Teaching content is teaching reading, Willingham claims:

I often share interesting perspectives from other education writers on this blog without necessarily endorsing those views. But I think I'm more or less on the same page as Willingham on this issue. Countless people complete their P-12 schooling unable to competently and confidently read a newspaper or a good book. I suspect that one reason for this is that these individuals lack the vocabulary (including specialized, disciplinary vocabulary) and the content knowledge to make sense of what they find in unfamiliar writings.

A major counterexample, however, is the case of students reading in a foreign language - including English language learners and English native speakers learning another language. I remain unable to fluently and quickly read a newspaper or novel in Japanese despite 10 years of study - but that doesn't reflect my content-area or disciplinary knowledge. It does, however, reflect my limited vocabulary in that language.

Friday, September 25, 2009

If you enjoy Wide Awake Minds....

Wide Awake Minds has turned into a truly unique project over the past few months. It is one of the few sites on the web that advocates lifelong learning for learning's sake while placing a very high value on formal schooling and the work of teachers and other educators.

If you enjoy the interviews, commentary, and profiles you find on Wide Awake Minds, consider helping to build an online community of people passionate about learning, teaching, and self-education.

On the sidebar on the right-hand side of this blog, you'll find an option to "Follow" the blog using Google Friend Connect - anyone with a Google account can become a follower with one click. It's an easy way to show your support and interest.

And, if you have a Facebook account, here is a link to our new Facebook page, which you can "become a fan" of to show your support and receive updates in your Facebook stream. I'll use that page to update readers on recent posts, post links and media related to education and self-education, and host discussions and debates about challenging issues in education and self-education.

Finally, you can follow me on Twitter - my Twitter feed includes some political and social commentary not directly related to education, but I try to always post interesting and educational links and stories as I find them online.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Interview: Educator and self-educator Deven Black

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator (interviewee): Devin Black

Self-educator’s location: Bronx, NY

Date: 21 September 2009

(Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of interviews Wide Awake Minds will be conducting with educators and self-educators. If you enjoy these interviews or other material on this blog, please consider linking to us, mentioning us on Facebook and Twitter, and emailing and sharing our articles. If you would like to share your story as an educator or self-educator, please contact me. Thanks for reading!)

Deven Black is a special education teacher in the Bronx. After dropping out of two high schools and a college, Black discovered alternative education and the work of radical education critics such as John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, and Ivan Illich; this experience led him to begin a lifelong journey of thinking about the education system and its relationship to students who struggle in traditional classroom environments. He maintains a blog and a Twitter feed.

WAM: What is your profession?

DB: I am a middle school special education and social studies teacher. I started teaching when I was 50 years old.

Teaching is just the latest of a long chain of careers. I have also been, in no particular order, a radio newsman, a bartender, a newspaper reporter, a political campaign operative, an advertising copywriter, a restaurant manager, a restaurant critic, and a voice-over artist.

Other than going to grad school to get a teaching degree, none of the job-specific knowledge used in any of those careers came through what might be considered normal channels.

While I had some success in all those careers, particularly in radio and restaurant management, I failed in many, and it is those failures that taught me the most. Failure necessitated trying something new, whether a new approach or methodology or a totally new career.

I am a great believer in the value of failure. Of course there are a lot of reasons people fail, but generally never failing means you just haven’t been challenged enough and you haven’t grown nearly as much as you could. My biggest problem with schools is that they don’t value failure. They teach that failure is bad and something to be avoided instead of how to use failure constructively.

WAM: You teach special education classes in the Bronx. What are some of the special challenges you confront as an educator? How have these challenges affected you as a professional as well as your view of formal education in the U.S.?

Special education is a very strange field. It is very broad and includes students with a wide range of abilities. (That is not a typo). Special education at its best is about maximizing the abilities of our students.

I teach students who are said to have learning disabilities. The first challenge I face as a middle school special education teacher is usually to try to convince my students that they are not disabled any more than anyone else. Everybody has things they are particularly capable of doing and other things in which they have no talent to develop. I can’t dance or play a musical instrument. If those skills were valued as much as multiplication or reading, I would be labeled learning-disabled. My students are in the unfortunate situation of having talents that are different from those valued in school, and they get labeled.

My being a special education teacher has reinforced and focused my belief that school is not the right venue for everyone. School is a particular setting with particular procedures, values and demands. It is a perfect fit for many students, but for those of us on either end of the bell curve it is not. For us, school is either a neutral or negative environment that doesn’t meet our needs. Much of the undesirable behaviors seen in schools are inarticulate statements of unmet needs.

WAM: You dropped out of high school twice and college once. Why did you make those decisions? Would you decide differently today? How has the environment changed in recent decades for those who do not complete high school or college?

DB: I think the situation for high school and college dropouts today is much the same as it was almost 40 years ago when I did it. There are some people who have some exceptional abilities and they may succeed in spite of dropping out and there are some people whose lives are compromised in some way by the lack of high school and/or college credentials.

There have been some changes in the landscape. Homeschooling is more prevalent and recognized as are online classes, but those recognitions are not universal. So, while there are more alternatives to traditional brick, mortar and tassel schools, there is still a long way to go before everyone has a real choice.

WAM: What do you understand the term “self-education” to mean?

DB: First and foremost, self-education is an almost universally practiced method of learning. Everyone who pursues a hobby or takes steps to follow a particular interest is practicing self-education, though they may not realize it unless it is made explicit to them.

WAM: Does the description of the self-educator’s mind as a “wide-awake mind” resonate with you? Why?

DB: I am aware that I am constantly learning even though what I am learning at any given moment or collection of moments is not necessarily clear to me. If I attend a lecture about baseball I will surely learn something about baseball that was purposefully taught to me, but I will also learn so many more things about my feelings about baseball; how to or how not to present a lecture; a new style of dress; new technology or new uses for old technology as used in the lecture; and so much more.

WAM: Why should we be curious? What ought we to be curious about? What forms does your own curiosity take? If you are curious about something – say, an academic subject or the way something works – do you follow up on that curiosity by studying?

DB: Being curious is not something we do, it is how we are born; we can hardly take a rest from our curiosity.

I am curious about so many things, big and small, and almost every time I look at a newspaper or the Internet I find something new to be curious about. Sometimes all I do is read the article or what’s on the website, but other times I dig deeper and, depending on what I discover and the amount of time I have, deeper again. Today I learned about the relative amount of meat in the diet of the ten most and ten least carnivorous nations, shifts in religious identification in the US by state, Gasworks Park in Seattle, and how Justin Buck is now thought to be the best defensive player on the football Giants.

WAM: What role do you see for the arts in education

DB: As a special education teacher I see the visual, musical, and performing arts as requiring different skills than the academic classroom and as places where my students typically have a chance to shine in ways not available elsewhere in school. The arts allow visual and kinesthetic learners opportunities that cater to their learning style.

WAM: What are your past and present methods of self-education? Which have you found most effective? Do you use the Internet or other technology to self-educate or expand your intellectual horizons?

DB: I am fortunate in that I grew up in New York City and my earliest self-education experiences involved wandering around the city. While I was learning a tremendous amount about a great many things, that was not my purpose. The learning occurred because I have an inquisitive mind, talent for noticing patterns and making connections, and a relatively open mind, and I am generally at ease in new situations.

I did not become aware that I was self-educating until a few years later when, living on Cape Cod and working as a news reporter and talk-show host for a local radio station, I got invited to speak at the career day of the alternative program that was part of and housed at the local high school. I ended up getting very involved with that program. I was 21 years old, had dropped out of two high schools and college, and was intrigued by this program that was operating in a way totally alien to my high school experience. I asked a lot of questions and the four teachers in the program turned me on to education critiques, writers and books. That was the start of my self-awareness of my self-education.

I don’t use any particular method in my self-education. I use whatever is available. I read books or articles; I listen to lectures, discussions or music; I seek out experts to interview; I use the Internet or anything else. Education has been my main interest for 30+ years, and it is about the only topic that I have any kind of systematic approach to, but it is such a broad and growing topic that the deeper I get into it the less systematic I am about it.

I have almost no academic discipline. When, at the age of 36, I decided to return to college because I found a school, Empire State College, a part of the State University of New York system, that fit my needs. Empire State uses a mentor system, independent learning, study groups, and almost any other form of education other than large classes and lectures. It also gives credit for demonstrated prior learning. Their application had twelve general topics one could choose from and you were supposed to pick the one that interested you. I picked all 12 and wrote an essay explaining my holistic approach and my sense of the interconnectedness of everything and everyone.

It was wonderful to have a school that appreciated that not everyone learns the same way and that let me have a very broad focus.

WAM: Who are your educational, intellectual, artistic, and moral role models?

DB: I have so many. My parents taught me about responsibility for myself and for the world. I am a religious agnostic who has taken moral guidance from all the major and quite a few of the minor religions. I embrace nonviolence, which I learned from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. Intellectually I’m influenced by my college mentor, Miriam Tatzel; Douglas Hofstadter; John Taylor Gatto (who was one of my teachers in middle school); and so many others.

WAM: What is your formal educational background? How did you feel about your formal education? Did you in some ways benefit from the constraints and parameters it provided?

I dropped out of two high schools, one considered one of the nation’s finest and requiring a competitive exam for admission, and the other my local neighborhood high school. I then dropped out of college. All this happened before I was 17. These schools had many strengths and have successfully educated hundreds of thousands of students. They just didn’t fit me at that time.

I had an amazing middle school experience. I was in an accelerated program in which we would do three year’s work, 7th, 8th and 9th grades, in two school years. My teachers included a masterful teacher, Elizabeth Novad, in her last years before retiring, and John Taylor Gatto, then a young and fairly new teacher.

Mrs. Novad was the best teacher I ever had. She had very high expectations for us and helped us develop the tools to meet them. We read two Shakespeare plays a year and took field trips to see them on stage. We read A Tale of Two Cities and, as a class, decided to rewrite it as a musical and film it. This was in 1965, and we worked in 8mm. We wrote the script, the lyrics and some original music. We developed a way to film a fairly graphic decapitation (of me!) by guillotine without, I’m happy to say, actually having to cut my head off. We went in pairs to the adolescent literature graduate course she was teaching to tell them about the books we were reading and our generally low opinion of adolescent lit. In short, our intellects and creativity were uncovered, energized, engaged and celebrated.

Part of the problem that P-12 schools have is that they act like they have an exclusive monopoly on learning. This arrogant fantasy reduces the efficacy and utility of schools because it compartmentalizes learning instead of integrating it. I often hear teachers complain that students who learn a skill in one class don’t have the ability to apply it in a different subject class. This occurs because subjects are taught as separate domains, disassociated from each other and from the world outside of school. Students learn that there is information and skills one needs inside schools and that these are different from those needed outside.

The amount of information available to the average person has expanded exponentially in my lifetime. Despite E.D Hirsch, Jr.’s attempt to identify what learning is necessary to create a common core of knowledge among Americans, it is increasingly difficult to identify what information is essential for every American to know. Schools need to teach the skills necessary to research, access, assess and apply the information available online. This will be impossible to do until there is universal full-time access to computers and the Internet in American schools. It makes no sense to continue to use 19th century technology (pencils, pens, blackboards and chalk) or its 20th Century upgrade (dry erase markers) in times when even the most tech-resistant teachers are using email to communicate.

In his book Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich imagined an education marketplace in which people who seek certain knowledge or skill, playing guitar or architecture for example, find and engage with people who know and can teach what is sought. This is a system of self-education and it is increasingly visible in communities all across America. Even schools are starting to operate this way. I have read several articles about how schools too small to offer certain classes within their building - Italian language was one example – allow and encourage students to take online classes. In other words, they allow the student to choose what to learn and, with some oversight, who to learn it from.

The most effective schools are the ones that embrace and are embraced by the community, those that understand that learning is constant and occurs everywhere. Schools need to evolve from closed-off fortresses to open community resources. They have facilities that can facilitate self-directed or contracted learning and teaching.

WAM: What role do other people play in your self-education? Do you find that conversations and other exchanges with other people can be educative, and if so, do you seek out such exchanges?

DB: Like most people, I am a social learner. Most of my self-directed learning involves contact with other people. I have developed interest in topics I didn’t even know existed through interpersonal contact. I am not an autodidact; I have had a series of short-term and long-term mentors to stimulate, help inform, and guide my inquiries.

WAM: Do you follow current events, and if so, where do you get your news? Why did you select those sources? Do you feel that it is important to follow current events and/or participate in political debate, and if so, why?

DB: I have been a newspaper and radio news reporter. My first jobs as a teen involved current events. I am a news junkie. I read as much of the New York Times as I can before going to work in the morning. I listen to NPR and I read the articles friends or my PLN (Personal Learning Network) recommend by sending links. I listen to people around me talking.

I grew up with newspapers arriving daily. Public affairs were discussed at the dinner table. My parents were politically active. Civic awareness is in my DNA.

I have been politically active since I was seven and worked in my first electoral campaign putting stamps on envelopes. By my teen years I was directing a campaign for a State Assembly candidate. I have opinions and am not afraid to express them.

Sometimes it seems like some Americans practice a willful ignorance of government and public affairs. It does not portend a lengthy life for democracy. The centralization of power is disturbing. People should exert more control over our government, but they need to be well-informed to do so intelligently.

Thank you, Deven, for your time and for the good work you do.

Please take a moment to visit Deven's blog and Twitter feed. If you enjoyed this interview, consider posting it on Facebook or Twitter, or emailing it to a friend.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Self-educators, polymaths, and lovers of learning

I am constantly adding new links and resources to the sidebar, and I've just added an entire section with links to biographies - usually on Wikipedia - of "self-educators, polymaths, and lovers of learning." The word "polymath" refers to a person who is highly skilled in several disciplines or fields of study.

The list is far from complete - I could put a thousand names on it and still miss countless famous and unknown self-educators and lifelong learners. But it is worth exploring; I included quite a few names that I hadn't heard of until today. I'll continue adding to the list in the coming weeks and months.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The art of memorization

Memorization gets a bad rap in education circles, but it remains a fact of life for students and adults in many settings: anatomy and other subjects in pre-medical or medical school; "black-letter" legal rules and terminology in law school; dates and locations in undergraduate history survey courses; the names and dates of artworks in art history courses; and vocabulary and grammatical structures in the study of world languages.

In the professional world, there is an acute need to remember names and faces: all of your networking will come to naught if you can't remember anyone's name. And if you are a K-12 teacher, you are expected to learn something like 150 new names within the first week or two of each school year.

It is helpful to approach memorization tasks as challenges requiring a clever solution rather than as pure drudgery.

As a new preservice teacher, I have worked hard to memorize every student's name in my first few encounters with my mentor teacher's classes. The kids noticed my effort, and several complimented me on it - I am convinced that it has helped me build their trust and allowed me to project an image of competence despite my lack of experience. I used several tricks: immediately addressing each student by name, using the seating chart as a crutch when necessary; memorizing names in pairs or rows according to where students sit; repeating the names as often as possible; and frequently testing myself, never allowing myself to glance past students I don't know or get away with not knowing a student's name.

I am also currently taking a survey course in early American history to fulfill a certification requirement. I will be tested later today on my knowledge of the first sixteen Presidents and their years of service:

George Washington (1789-1797); John Adams (1797-1801); Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809); James Madison (1809-1817); James Monroe (1817-1825); John Quincy Adams (1825-1829); Andrew Jackson (1829-1837); Martin Van Buren (1837-1841); William H. Harrison (1841); John Tyler (1841-1845); James K. Polk (1845-1849); Zachary Taylor (1849-1850); Millard Fillmore (1850-1853); Franklin Pierce (1853-1857); James Buchanan (1857-1861); Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865).

One's first instinct when looking at a list like this is to despair - or to fall back on that favorite excuse of students everywhere, demanding to know why one needs to learn this. I saw the list and immediately envisioned myself writing the names and dates over and over again, making flash cards, and in general wasting my time on a very frustrating activity.

But then I thought it through again and devised a strategy that enabled me to memorize the list in less than two hours:

1. Break up the task. I find it especially helpful to break it up "vertically" rather than "horizontally" - rather than memorize three Presidents at a time, memorize all of the Presidents' last names and first initials in order before even looking at the dates.

2. Memorize the last names in pairs and chunks: I had trouble with the second half of this list, so I first solidified my understanding of the first half, then remembered "Tyler-Polk-Taylor" before moving on to "Fillmore-Pierce-Buchanan-Lincoln." I then wrote the list - last names only - out from memory a few times, then waited a day and did it again. The first names are easy and can be picked up gradually as you move through the activity.

3. Having the last names and first initials down pat, I looked at the dreaded dates for the first time. Before banging my head against these, I paused to notice a few things:

-The range of dates is 1789 (NOT 1776), President Washington's inauguration, to 1865, the assassination of President Lincoln.

-Because of the safeguards for Presidential succession built into the Constitution, there has never, ever been a time in the history of the United States since 1789 that we have not had a President. Therefore, you only need to memorize the first date of every pair. The second date of each pair - i.e., the last year of each presidency - is identical to the first year of the next presidency.

-A single presidential term lasts four years; two complete terms last eight years. Are there any Presidents in the list who served less than a single term? There are only three: Harrison (1841), Taylor (1849-1850), and Fillmore (1850-1853). I memorized the length of each of these three short presidencies first.

-Only five of the 16 Presidents on this list served two full terms, so I memorized these five: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson.

And that is all the information you need to memorize to complete the list! The list begins with Washington in 1789 - he served two terms, so you add eight years to get (1789-1797) - and so on.

It's a lot more fun and sensible than flash cards.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Benjamin Franklin: America's greatest self-educator

The following excerpts are from Carl Van Doren's "Meet Dr. Franklin," in Van Deusen, ed., Readings in American History:

Franklin had, I think, the most eminent mind that has ever existed in America. No wonder there are so many legendary misconceptions of him that it is difficult now to restore and comprehend him in the great integrity of his mind, character, and personality. He appears, somehow, to be a syndicate of men. We study him as a scientist, as a diplomat, as a statesman, as a business man, as an economist, as a printer, as a humorist and wit, as a great writer, as a sage, and as a great landmark in the history of human speech about the common ways of life.
Franklin's eminence was in his almost supreme mind that moved to its countless tasks with what seems perfect ease.
The experiment which Franklin proposed, to prove whether electricity and lightning were identical, and his own separate demonstration with the kite, must be ranked with the most fundamental as well as the most striking experiments in scientific history. The story of the kit is now so old and so familiar that it has come to seem a pleasant legend.... Franklin, drawing the lightning from the skies, removed it from the dread region of mythology. Kant was not speaking for picturesque effect when he said Franklin was a new Prometheus who had stolen fire from heaven. The expression meant, literally, that Franklin had made men equals of the gods and therefore free of an ancient slavish dread. Nobody in 1752 felt that the kite story was a quaint little incident.
Though from 1773 to 1783 Franklin was so much absorbed in politics he had little time for general ideas, he had hardly signed the final treaty of peace with England when his mind was alert with bold conjectures again. Having seen the first ascent of human passengers in a free balloon, in Paris in November 1783, Franklin at once - and apparently alone among his contemporaries - foresaw the possibility of aerial warfare. This discovery, he wrote in December, might "give a new turn to human affairs."
Though Franklin was an excellent and successful business man, he retired from active business at forty-two and spent forty-two years more in the service of the public. He might have made a fortune if he had patented his stove or his lightning-rod. He refused to patent anything which he thought might be of benefit to mankind. As he did not hungrily gather wealth, so he did not cautiously guard his comfort or safety. It must never be forgotten that in his seventieth year Franklin might with decency have done what his more conservative son advised him to do: that is, retire from active affairs and let younger men settle the conflict between England and America. Instead Franklin, at the risk of peace and even of his neck, took his stand with the revolutionaries. Life with him began all over again at seventy. The older the bolder.

Carl Van Doren
--"Meet Dr. Franklin" in Van Deusen, ed., Readings in American History

Friday, September 18, 2009

Listening and self-education

Self-educators actively and consciously listen to others with the aim of learning as much from them as possible. They respect the other who is speaking not only as a person, but as a potential teacher, and they ask themselves what they can learn from the other’s words or speech.

This seems like a commonplace idea – you’ve heard it before. But in fact it is a radical idea, as there are few people in our world with the gift of being very good listeners. Such people are sought out by others and gain their confidence and trust; they learn more about the complexities of others’ experiences and feelings because not only do they hear, absorb, and remember more of what they are told, but they also receive more information because others divulge more to them. Many of the best listeners are drawn toward the helping professions: they become pastors or rabbis, therapists, counselors, teachers, or social workers. And their ability to listen is a core source of their success and power.

Most of us do not have the gift of being very good listeners. But we can work to improve our ability to listen, and our patience with listening. We can recognize that as valuable as our own insights might be, we are not the only ones with something valuable to say. And rather than lose our patience with someone who expresses an uninformed opinion about something, we can listen to them and try to get to the bottom of what they believe, why they believe it, and what their worldview really is and where it comes from.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Excerpts from Alfie Kohn's "Unconditional Teaching"

I am a fan of Alfie Kohn, whom I discovered when my mother was in education school. I purchased his The Schools Our Children Deserve as a junior in high school, and it was my first encounter with education as a discipline. I often disagree with his views, but I always find them challenging and provocative.

Here are a few excerpts from Kohn's wonderful article "Unconditional Teaching":

The current version of school reform is changing what we value. If the sole goal is to raise achievement (in the narrowest sense of that word), then we may end up ignoring other kinds of learning beyond the academic. It’s exceedingly difficult to teach the whole child when people are held accountable only for raising reading and math scores.

Moreover, when some capabilities are privileged over others, and a broader approach to education is sacrificed, we begin to look at students differently. We come to lose sight of children “except as they distribute themselves across deciles” (Hogan, 1974, p. iii). That means that some kids – namely, the high scorers – are prized more than others by the adults. One Florida superintendent observed that “when a low-performing child walks into a classroom, instead of being seen as a challenge, or an opportunity for improvement, for the first time since I’ve been in education, teachers are seeing [him or her] as a liability” (Wilgoren, 2000).
A diminution in what we value, then, may affect whom we value. But the damage isn’t limited to those students who fail to measure up – that is, by conventional standards. If some children matter more to us than others, then all children are valued only conditionally.
Psychological theorists and researchers (e.g., Deci and Ryan, 1995; Kernis, 2003) are coming to realize that the best predictor to mental health may not be one’s level of self-esteem but the extent to which it fluctuates. The real problem isn’t self-esteem that’s too low (“I don’t like myself very much”) so much as self-esteem that’s too contingent (“I like myself only when…”). Conversely, kids who have an underlying sense of their own value are more likely to see failure as a temporary set-back, a problem to be solved. They’re also less likely to be anxious or depressed (Chamberlain and Haaga, 2001).
When children receive affection with strings attached, they do indeed tend to accept themselves only with strings attached.
If “You are the best!” just means “You can do A.P. calculus,” then this suggests that only those who master differential equations are “the best.” Surely, says (Nel) Noddings, “a student should not have to succeed at A.P. calculus to gain a math teacher’s respect.”
Unconditional teachers are not afraid to be themselves with students – to act like real human beings rather than crisply controlling authority figures. Their classrooms have an appealing informality about them. They may bring in occasional treats for their students – all their students – for no particular reason. They may write notes to children, have lunch with them, respond from the heart to their journal entries. Such teachers listen carefully to what kids say and remember details about their lives: “Hey, Joanie. You said on Friday that your Mom might take you to the fair over the weekend. Did you go? Was it fun?”
Imagine that your students are invited to respond to a questionnaire several years after leaving the school. They’re asked to indicate whether they agree or disagree – and how strongly – with statements such as: “Even when I wasn’t proud of how I acted, even when I didn’t do the homework, even when I got low test scores or didn’t seem interested in what was being taught, I knew that [insert your name here] still cared about me.”

How would you like your students to answer that sort of question? How do you think they will answer it?

Alfie Kohn
--"Unconditional Teaching," in Educational Leadership, 9/05.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The pleasures of the teaching life

I just started student teaching last week, and I love it so far. Here are a few of the things I am enjoying about it and looking forward to in my career as an educator:

-The opportunity to connect with students, and the potential to reach many students over the course of a year (and tens of thousands of students over the course of a career in education).

-The school environment. The local high school is often the central institution in a community: many, many people are heavily invested in the work that goes on there. For hundreds of teenagers, the high school is the central setting of life and growth for several years.

-Listening to NPR and sipping coffee on my way to work at 6 a.m. What better way to start the day? (OK, so maybe that isn't unique to teaching.)

-The ability to think and talk about three of the subjects I love - history, politics, and education - all day long.

-The opportunity to stand up and move around all day instead of being stuck at a desk or in a cubicle.

-The presence of humor: the kids are often hilarious, and the teachers, administration, and staff are often smiling and laughing.

-The intellectual, personal, and psychological pleasure of building a caring, accepting, respectful attitude toward students, and of working to understand each student's unique background, needs, and capabilities. The work draws you outside of yourself.

-The sense that what you do every day - the attitude, skills, and awareness you bring to work every morning - has a direct and considerable impact on the lives of others.

-The feeling that one is part of a grand and noble project, an incredible challenge: to improve schools and shape the minds and lives of students. I feel very conscious of the need to improve schools and the educational climate and infrastructure, and I know that the number one way I can do my part is to work hard as a teacher and writer, reflect often, and strive every day to create the most educative experiences possible for my students.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Interview: Author, finance scholar, and self-educator Wesley Gray

Interviewer: Ryan McCarl

Featured self-educator: Wesley Gray

Self-educator's hometowns: Bethesda, MD and Cottonwood, CA

Self-educator's age: 29

Date: 30 August 2009

(Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of interviews Wide Awake Minds will be conducting with educators and self-educators. If you enjoy these interviews or other material on this blog, please consider linking to us, mentioning us on Facebook and Twitter, and emailing and sharing our articles. If you would like to share your story as an educator or self-educator, please contact me. Thanks for reading!)

Wesley Gray is the author of Embedded: A Marine Corps Adviser Inside the Iraqi Army, advanced Ph.D. candidate in finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and founder and manager of the hedge fund Empirical Finance, LLC. He blogs at Welcome to the Adventure and Empirical Finance Research Blog.

WAM: Why should we be curious? What ought we to be curious about? What forms does your own curiosity take? If you are curious about something – say, an academic subject or the way something works – do you follow up on that curiosity by studying?

WG: At its most basic level, curiosity is probably something that has evolved in humans because it helps us survive and forces us to explore and learn new things. Here’s a simple example of how being curious caused me to learn new knowledge that made my life easier. Before my deployment to Iraq as an embedded military advisor with an Iraqi infantry unit, I was very curious about Iraqi culture. My curiosity encouraged me to learn and understand how Iraqis thought about the world. Throughout my deployment, my knowledge of the culture (and language) helped me convince the Iraqis soldiers that planning before missions was important, torturing prisoners is not always the best idea, and wearing body armor makes sense (even in 130 degree weather).

My knowledge of the culture, which stemmed from an initial curiosity, even saved my life at one point. I was on patrol with some Iraqi soldiers in Haditha, Iraq. We were on a look-out post in a local’s home scanning for insurgents placing bombs in the road. While the soldiers were upstairs, I stayed on the first floor and chatted with the family to get intelligence information. My American instincts encouraged me to discuss business and the current operation at hand, but my knowledge of the culture told me otherwise: I needed to talk about family, life, and the softer side of the world if I was to create a good impression with the Iraqi family and get any valuable information. My efforts were successful. As we were leaving the family’s home, one of the young boys hinted to us that an ambush was set up for us on our current patrol route and that we should reroute through the palm groves. We followed the young boy’s advice and dodged a very bad situation.

If I had not been curious about Iraqi culture and never took the steps to become knowledgeable, I would probably not be alive today. Curiosity doesn’t always kill the cat.

WAM: What do you understand the term “self-education” (or “autodidacticism”) to mean? Do you think of it as a philosophy or lifestyle, or simply as an action? Please explain what it means to you.

WG: Learning new things is something I love - the more I learn, the better. Unfortunately, it’s unrealistic to always have a teacher on hand at my beckoning call, so self-education is mandatory. Now that the internet is overflowing with video lectures, course notes, and self-contained learning packages, it’s hard not to be excited about the future of self-education.

WAM: Does the description of the self-educator’s mind as a “wide-awake mind” resonate with you? Why?

WG: I think it does. Self-education takes an extra level of discipline and effort from the individual since they are actively trying to teach themselves something new - these folks certainly have "wide-awake minds." In contrast, a student sitting in the lecture hall zoning out and thinking about the previous night’s fraternity party as the professor lectures probably has a "sleepy mind."

WAM: What are your past and present methods of self-education? Which have you found most effective? Do you use the Internet or other technology to self-educate or expand your intellectual horizons?

WG: In the past, the local or university library was my main hangout when I needed to learn about something I was interested in. These days I work almost exclusively through the web — my guess is that I haven’t checked a book out from the library in over a year! The Internet has truly revolutionized information sharing, and Google and Wikipedia have figured out how to organize it all in a reasonably coherent manner (or at least they have done a reasonable job so far).

WAM: What is or was your profession? Did you self-educate on the job or as part of your job? Did you see your work as complementary to or a distraction from your interests and education? If your self-education took place largely outside of the workplace, how did you make time for it?

WG: I spent my four years in the military, which had nothing to do with my formal education (which was focused on economics and math). Needless to say, a large portion of my knowledge in the military was self-taught. There is even a saying in the military that there is no excuse for a young lieutenant to not have a 3000 year old mind - all they need to do is read the history of battles over the years, or in other words, self-educate!

My current profession is in the field of finance. I run a small hedge fund and plan on going on the academic job market this year in the hope of landing a job as a finance professor at a top MBA program. Self-education is absolutely essential in this field. I haven't taken a formal class in finance in years, and yet my knowledge in the subject is still fairly robust because of all my self-education efforts.

WAM: Who are your educational, intellectual, artistic, and moral role models?

WG: I have a few role models: my parents, of course, and then some of my favorites are Senator James Webb, William H. Donaldson, Pat Tillman, Teddy Roosevelt, and Eugene Fama (the hardest working academic in finance).

WAM: What is your formal educational background? How did you feel about your formal education?

WG: I received a BS in Economics at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 2002, and I expect to complete a Ph.D./MBA in Finance at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in 2010.

My formal education was focused on learning skills that I could actually use to pay the bills. I figured that since I was paying for that education I should at least get the greatest return possible.

When it comes to self-education I spent a lot more time learning about things that really don’t translate into income: astronomy, military history, politics, world cultures, travel adventures, etc. Of course, self-education doesn’t cost me much either so I have the luxury to indulge in some areas I probably wouldn’t if I was still worried about paying the bills.

WAM: What role do other people play in your self-education? Do you find that conversations and other exchanges with other people can be educative, and if so, do you seek out such exchanges?

WG: I am a huge fan of message boards, collaboration, and thinking through problems in teams. If given the opportunity to indulge in self-education, I focus on the areas where I can learn new things with others.

WAM: Do you follow current events, and if so, where do you get your news? Why did you select those sources? Do you feel that it is important to follow current events and/or participate in political debate, and if so, why?

WG: I follow current events religiously - specifically economic and geopolitical news.

My news sources and commentary primarily come from a hand-selected group of around 500 blogs/outlets I have been collecting for the past four or five years. I’ve tried to make my collection of sources as diverse and well rounded as possible to avoid bias, group-think, and a variety of other psychological pitfalls from which I suffer. I synthesize all these blogs in an efficient manner via Google Reader.

MIT and Berkeley have excellent open source access to lecture notes, videos, and material for almost all of their courses. I am also a huge fan of YouTube and Google. If I’m ever interested in a topic I simply “google” it and can usually find a group of lectures or insightful media on the topic.

Here are a few of the sites I visit for self-education (mostly economics-related):

WAM: Any other thoughts?

WG: Education is really the key to leveling the playing field and giving everyone at least a reasonable shot at success in this world. The Internet has created an epic leap forward in our ability to give everyone a shot at learning (redistribution efforts and handout systems don't work effectively).

If I were reinventing public policy with respect to education I would start with the following:

1. Provide and subsidize access to the Internet with a huge emphasis on improving users' ability to access information and educational content.

2. Provide instruction and guidance on self-education and how easy it is with the internet.

3. Provide incentives for people to be curious: religion, culture, and society always find ways to keep people in their place and think inside the box. The more we can encourage free speech and free thought, the better!

Thank you, Wes, for your time and for the good work you do.

Please take a moment to visit Wes's blog and check out his book at Amazon.com. If you enjoyed this interview, consider posting it to your Facebook wall or emailing it to a friend.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why schools matter

I've just completed my second day as a student teacher in a world history class in a Detroit-area high school. The kids haven't arrived yet - we've been having in-services (faculty meetings and professional development) and setting up our classrooms. But I am enjoying the job so far and am excited to start teaching.

The in-services have been interesting. I have read a great deal about education policy and the state of America's schools, but this is the first time I've sat in one of those schools, learned about the specific challenges it faces, and heard an administration and faculty propose ideas about how to deal with those challenges and improve student achievement.

The study of education in the abstract can sometimes seem dull, and the study of education policy can leave one with a feeling of hopelessness - a sense that the obstacles to positive change are countless and insurmountable. But the fact is that there are steps that can be taken at every level - the levels of national policy, state policy, local policy, district administration, school administration, and individual classrooms - to improve schools in ways large and small. And we must do so. The alternative is to continue to let millions of children fall through society's cracks and grow up functionally illiterate, impoverished, or incarcerated. We must work at saving as many minds (and lives) as possible by doing everything we can - each in our own ways and according to our own vocation - to reach kids who are at risk of failing in school and dropping out, and to encourage kids that are not at-risk to take ownership of their education, to take their education seriously.

The work of educators matters in so many ways. The level of talent, effort, and care a single teacher or administrator brings to his or her job every day can make the difference between a fulfilled, flourishing life and a life of hopelessness for many of the kids they teach.

Whether a student succeeds or fails in school will have ripple effects throughout that student's life. That student's success or failure will affect the success or failure of his or her children; it will affect the happiness of the student and his or her current and future family; and it will, in subtle but serious ways, affect the well-being and prosperity of the student's community.

I believe in the importance of self-education, but I also understand that the work of K-16 schools (kindergarten through college) plays a critical role in shaping students, families, and communities. Schools are where we can reach people when it matters most in their development. Schools are where we can send the message that learning matters, that the arts are valuable, that reading is worthwhile, that the world is filled with economic and educational opportunities, that success and achievement in modern society is worth the effort, that the success of a democracy depends upon informed political engagement, and that knowledge of history, science, mathematics, and literature matters to everyone, not just to specialists.

There is a great deal of difficult work to be done, and education policy is sometimes a messy tangle of statistics, acronyms, and dead-ends - but we cannot give up on discovering solutions, fighting for better funding for schools, and doing our small part to improve the educational infrastructure of our communities, because the work done in schools is critical to the human future.