The Hard-to-Tell Story of the High School Classroom

Now and then, an article lands in my inbox, promising that some technology will remake the classroom. Our schools, apparently, are as outdated as car-phones or medical leeches. It’s time to welcome the flipped classroom, the MOOC, the data-driven world.

It’s not all wrong, I’m sure. But it makes me wonder: How well do we actually know the classroom? Before we start drastic renovations, we should make sure we’ve got a clear view of the structure that’s already in place. And I’m not sure we do.

The story of the classroom is devilishly hard to tell.

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The Lesson I Learned from Hating on the SAT’s Guessing Policy

Man—I had a whole, scathing essay written and ready to go.

The title: The SAT Changed Their Guessing Policy to Appear Fairer, But It’s Actually Less Fair. “With the ACT pulling ahead in the admissions test Cola Wars,” I wrote, “I struggle to greet the SAT’s announced changes with anything but cynicism.”

I was halfway into the boxing ring when I realized I was on the wrong side of the fight.

This little fable is about the SAT’s “guessing penalty,” and while it’s a tale full of technicalities, I promise it’ll end with a moral. A moral so obvious, it’s surprising.

Or perhaps vice versa: so surprising, it’s obvious. Continue reading

Elegant, Simple, Coherent, and… Oh Yeah, Totally Wrong

In a Labor Economics class, I had a great TA named Peter. He taught me a deep truth about labor markets: namely, that TAs sometimes teach better than professors.

If people looked like bad drawings, he’d look like this:

He also taught me one of the most enduring lessons I’ve learned about economics, modeling, and the limits of theory to explain the social world.

But the lesson wasn’t about those things. Not explicitly. It was about the minimum wage. Continue reading

“Dead Poets Society” for Skeptics (or, How to Inspire Your Way into a Godawful Mess)

“This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.”
–Mr. Keating

Last Friday, after a long day walking around London, we ordered curries and sought a little cinematic comfort food. We settled eventually on the quintessential Inspirational Teacher film: Dead Poets Society.

I remembered the movie as fun but philosophically naïve. As guiding principles go, “carpe diem” seems to have all the intellectual heft of a Dos Equis commercial. I mean, I’d love to seize every moment, but when am I supposed to fit in laundry, groceries, and thank-you notes?

As a teacher, I’ve found my work nourishing, and occasionally magical, but never terribly heroic. It’s a quiet, daily grind. So where does Hollywood conjure up these human motivational posters? Isn’t the inspirational teacher just soothing movie gibberish, like talking animal sidekicks, or One True Love? Continue reading

The Voldemort of Calculus Classes

This year, I encountered the world’s worst calculus class, a mutant-frog specimen of undergraduate mathematics: UC Berkeley’s Math 16B. It’s an exercise in cynicism; a master-class in spite; a sordid and cautionary tale of everything that can go wrong in curriculum design.

16B is my blood-born nemesis. Neither can live while the other survives. Continue reading

Wealth, Acclaim, and Fancy Catered Lunches (or, Why I’m a Teacher)

Occasionally, friends ask me why I teach.

You could ask the same of any profession. Why did you become a grant-writer, a therapist, a sanitation engineer? Why dentistry? Why human resources? In crude and reductive terms, I see four basic justifications for any vocation:

  1. Compensation. Take air traffic controllers. They work longish hours in a maddeningly stressful workplace, but take home excellent money (over $100,000 per year) and can look forward to a long, well-pensioned retirement.

  1. Perceptions. Compared with air traffic controllers, most professors earn less money. But they draw another sizable benefit: prestige. Humans are social creatures, invested by nature in what others think of us. High status is no small thing.

  1. Quality of life. A pleasant workplace, friendly coworkers, reasonable hours, a short commute—all those little frills around the edges of a job sometimes matter as much as the job itself.

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