Saturday, November 12, 2011

To Be Honest

< Prologue >

To be, or not to be, that is the question.
Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1, William Shakespeare (circa 1601)

Honesty is such a lonely word.
Everyone is so untrue.
Honesty, Billy Joel (1979)

< 1 >

I presented at the K20 Innovative Learning Institute held in Norman, Oklahoma on Thursday. During the presentation several folks tweeted out quotes or reactions, including Laura Buxton who tweeted a quote from me about possible future spouses googling our students (in the context of talking about their digital footprint). Ira Socol tweeted back to Laura that he wished we would stop using scare tactics to threaten our students. I didn't see the tweets until the next day, but I replied back to Ira that I hadn't really thought of it as scare tactics, but I would think some more about it.

After thinking a bit I replied and said I still felt like it wasn't scare tactics, but simply being honest with our students. Keep in mind that that quote from my presentation was in the context of both a positive and negative digital footprint. I wasn't just talking about colleges, employers and spouses googling them (looking for something negative), but also about the positive footprint they should be building (so those folks - and others - could find the positive.)

I pretty much align with Ira in my distaste for trying to "scare straight" our students - I think they deserve more respect than that. On the other hand, I also think they are deserving enough of our respect to be honest with them - I think they can handle thinking about the possible negative consequences of their online actions (as well as the positive), without seeing it as a scare tactic. I don't want to threaten my students, but I also don't want to ignore the very possible consequences of a less-than-stellar digital footprint.

I agree with Ira when he suggested that our views of digital footprints are going to have to adapt (i.e., not hold things against young people forever), but I still think - especially for high school students - that they will be held somewhat accountable for their views and actions as teenagers. (In general, I think we underestimate the capabilities - and thoughtfulness - of teenagers, and we should respect them enough to expect good things from them.) If you agree that that's even a possibility, then I think they deserve to hear that from us now.

< 2 >

In my breakout sessions at K20 we talked about a bunch of different topics (resources here) but, as usual, the topic of Internet filtering came up. What was surprising to me this time was how many teachers were basically in favor of pretty strict filtering policies. In pretty much any educational audience there is, of course, a wide range of views on filtering, but in the past the teachers have tended to skew toward a much more open policy and administration and tech support have skewed much more toward a strict policy. While there was a wide variety of opinions present in the room, there seemed to be a much higher level of distrust of students among the teacher participants than what I'm accustomed to.

During one discussion with a high school teacher as we talked about YouTube, he said that if they didn't block it his students would immediately go to the "bad stuff." I asked that since they currently blocked it, how did he know? He replied, "They just would." I then asked exactly what "bad stuff" he thought they would go to on YouTube, and his reply was basically "just bad stuff." I then tried to make the analogy to a newspaper, so I asked if he filtered the newspaper before bringing it into his class. He replied, "Absolutely, I always screen the entire newspaper to make sure it's appropriate before bringing it in to school." (At that point I decided we probably weren't going to agree about YouTube.)

Among a larger than usual proportion of the teachers in the room there seemed to run a general level of distrust of our students. That we needed to control them, and filter the world for them, and make decisions for them. Now, I'm the first one to acknowledge that this is not a black-and-white issue, that as the adults we do sometimes have to make decisions that we feel are in the best interests of our students and that, occasionally, that may mean filtering or blocking - basically censoring - what they are exposed to.

But I see that "occasionally" as being a very rare occurrence. I wonder about the students in that teacher's class who can't be trusted with the newspaper, and how exactly when they turn 18 they suddenly will be able to handle it? I wonder about the students in that teacher's class who walk out into an unfiltered world when they leave the school building and are not having any guidance from the educators in their lives how best to deal with it? I wonder about our willingness to always put our judgment before their's? How exactly will our students become good at making decisions, become good at making judgments, become good at choosing what we would consider the right path if we never give them the opportunity to choose? How will our students become effective citizens in a democracy when they don't get a chance to practice democracy much in K-12?

I wonder how honest it is for us to proclaim that we are educating our students by "protecting" them? Are we protecting them, or ourselves?

< 3 >

I'm really struggling with my Algebra class. (For those not following along, I've picked up one section of Algebra due to budget cuts to go along with my full time technology coordinator job.) In general, I feel like I do a pretty good job of being up front and honest with my students. There are some topics in our Algebra I curriculum that I think aren't particularly necessary at this point (Standard Form of a linear equation comes to mind, as does one and two-variable linear inequalities) and, when those topics come up, I generally let the students know my opinion. I tell them that this is something that I wouldn't choose to teach them at this point, but that it's something that's in the curriculum so that were going to go ahead and learn it. (And, to be clear, I let them know that they are perfectly capable of learning it.)

I also think I'm fairly honest with my students in expressing my belief that while Algebra is probably the most practical of the high school math courses in my school, it still has quite a bit that won't be particularly useful to most of them. That I believe that the habits of mind they develop, that the learning stance they take, that the ability to learn they develop is probably going to more valuable to most of them in the long run then the actual Algebra skills. I try to show them the practical applications of the Algebra where possible, and I try to share some of the elegance of the mathematics where perhaps practical applications are hard to find, but I also freely acknowledge that at least some of what we do is perhaps a waste of their time.

But am I honest enough? I don't tell them that often I'm not sure if what I'm teaching them is in their best interest. I don't tell them that sometimes I don't know why this particular part of Algebra is important. I don't tell them that I often doubt whether this class is the best use of their time. I don't tell them that I struggle with whether I believe students should be taking Algebra in the first place, or whether school as we currently implement it is really designed with their best interests in mind.

But if I tell them all that, will that actually help them? Right now even the students that don't particularly like school or my Algebra class have a basic sense of trust that it's "good for them." Would it be right for me to tell them that I question that assumption, when I really don't have anything to replace it with? Would that harm them more than it would help them?

To be honest . . . I'm not really sure.

< Epilogue >

Primum non nocere (First, do no harm)
Physician and Patient, Worthington Hooker (1847)

Jerry Landers: You know, I'm, I'm liable to lose my job.
God: Lose a job, save a world. Not a bad deal.
Oh, God! (1977)


  1. Algebra is part of the the calculus of reality, and the linear model is fundamental to understanding a number of practical problems in everyday life. If a student does not have a firm grasp of the linear model, these practical problems will need to be understood heuristically and incompletely. The problem is when y=mx+b is how the linear model is taught. The linear model needs to be aligned with an understanding that all sorts of accumulation relationships, e.g. saving money, losing or gaining weight, understanding the deficit, that are closely characterized by linear models. When this alignment becomes intuitive, the linear model becomes a powerful tool in interpreting reality.

  2. Phil - While not the focus of the post, I essentially agree. Which is why it's so frustrating that we have to "cover" topics such as Standard Form, one and two-variable inequalities, absolute value, polynomials, etc, etc, etc.

  3. Hi Mr. Fisch,
    I am a student at the University of South Alabama majoring in Elementary Education. I have been assigned to read a post on your blog before and both times you really open my mind and make me think. This post is by far the best educational post I have read. In the second part you mention teachers who shelter their students from the "bad stuff". I thought back when I was in high school and how my teachers would shield us from the internet because it was too risky for high school kids. That is ridiculous. Majoring in Elementary Education, I have the chance to introduce the students to the world wide web. It is a great thing to have kids learning how to use the internet as early as possible.

    As for the third part of your post, why do you not agree with teaching the linear equations when the curriculum tells you to?

  4. Thanks Kacie, I do agree with teaching linear equations, I don't agree that teaching the standard form of a linear equation (Ax + By = C) is necessary for first year Algebra. I would rather discard some topics like that one in order to focus on what I feel is essential (understanding linear relationships in general).

  5. I wonder whether and to what extant you think connecting the teaching of the standard form to real world examples can enhance both the appreciation of the standard form and the understanding of linear relations. What prevents a teacher from connecting the different representations in this way? Is it the needs of standardized testing? A bad curriculum decision by the school district? I do research in this area, and am curious about your perspective.

  6. I understand your ambivalence about how honest to be with students. As a former English teacher, I also questioned the value of certain skills that were embedded in our curriculum. I also tried to be honest with my students, especially with those who suffered from dyslexia or who simply hated reading and writing. I would tell them that even if they couldn’t read or write well, that they could live good lives, create loving families, and succeed in the world. At times my faith in my subject would also waver—why read great literature? Why learn to write balanced, interesting sentences? Why insist on the proper use of commas and apostrophes? But I soldiered on, hoping that my love for writing and my love for my students would guide me.

    When love stops, good teaching is impossible. Good teachers encourage the sharing of ideas as they hone practical (and sometimes even impractical) skills and model new ways of thinking. Good teachers question themselves, constantly refine their course content and teaching techniques, and demonstrate tolerance for the individual students in their classrooms. With passion, commitment, and love, even imperfect teachers with imperfect curricula can help young people turn into successful, healthy adults who find meaning through love and work.

    Karl, I’m sure that your students sense your commitment to them, your open-mindedness, your sincerity. Algebra will matter very much to only a small percentage of your students. But the ideas you offer, the attitudes you convey, and the passion you exhibit will have huge impact in the lives of these ninth graders. They are lucky to be in your classroom, even if they hate Algebra.

  7. Graphing of a linear inequality problems gives its pictorial representation which gives result as straight line on the plane surface. The area of this line should be restricted or limited in a fixed region which is according to the value of right side of the linear inequalities equation. The basic terms used for graphing several equations are: x intercept, y intercept and slope.