Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Life Without Language

I found this post about the relationship between thought and language fascinating.
Human thought, for the majority, is not simply the individual outcome of our evolved neural architecture, but also the result of our borrowing of the immense symbolic and intellectual resources available in language. What would human thought be like without language? . . .

My own feeling, and I have not worked with a population that has a non-Western sense of time, is that it’s likely a softer form of the Whorfian argument, that language and culture affect the perceptual qualities of different sensory channels to varying degrees (perhaps more in some phenomenal qualities than in others) is the most defensible (and arguably, this is what Whorf was arguing all along). Time, for example, may be difficult to perceive in certain ways if you are not culturally trained to habitually conducting yourself in relation to time appropriately: certainly, there is deep cultural difference in the degree to which people orient themselves by the clock, and varying emphases that societies place on recurrence or irreversibility of time. This isn’t to say that language is a perceptual world, but rather than languages can induce certain perceptual biases that may be more or less difficult to overcome. But what about those without language? . . .

So can people have thought without words? Well, the evidence-based answer would seem to be, yes, but it’s not the same sort of thought. Some things appear to be easier to ‘get’ without language (such as imitation of action), other things appear to be a kind of ‘all-at-once’ intuition (such as suddenly realizing all things have names), and other ideas are difficult without language being deeply enmeshed with cognitive development over long periods of time (like an English-based understanding of time as quantitative and spatialized). In other words, language is not simply an either/or proposition, but part of a cognitive developmental niche that shapes both our abilities and (unperceived) disabilities relative to the fully cognitively matured language-less individual.
--Greg Downey


Thursday, July 08, 2010

An incredibly important speech on education by Diane Ravitch

That is a brief clip of Diane Ravitch addressing the Representative Assembly of the National Education Association on July 6, where she was receiving an award as the 2010 "Friend of Education."

Please keep reading.

The complete text of Diane's speech can be read here. She has given me permission to quote as much as I deem appropriate, including the whole speech if necessary.

I won't do that. You can follow the link to read the entire text if so inclined.

Let me offer some selections to at least whet your appetite, as well as offer a bit of commentary of my own.

... in all of this time, aside from the right-wing think tanks, I haven’t seen met a single teacher who likes what’s happening? I haven’t met a single teacher who thinks that No Child Left Behind has been a success. I haven’t met a single teacher who thinks that Race to the Top is a good idea.

I remind readers that the Representative Assembly passed a resolution of no confidence in Race to the Top.

And as I talk to teachers, by the end of my talk, I hear the same questions again and again: What can we do? How can we stop the attacks on teachers and on the teaching profession? Why is the media demonizing unions? Why does the media constantly criticize public schools? And why does it lionize charter schools? Why is Arne Duncan campaigning with Newt Gingrich? Why has the Obama Administration built its education agenda on the punitive failed strategies of No Child Left Behind?

Newt Gingrich - now there's a great ally for a supposedly progressive administration, eh? And during the campaign, Obama railed against NCLB, yet too much of the administration policy continues to rely on the failed policies of that approach.

I will continue to speak out against high-stakes testing. It undermines education. High-stakes testing promotes cheating, gaming the system, teaching to bad tests, narrowing the curriculum. High-stakes testing means less time for the arts, less time for history or geography or civics or foreign languages or science.

We see schools across America dropping physical education. We see them dropping music. We see them dropping their arts programs, their science programs, all in pursuit of higher test scores. This is not good education.

I have been told by some people in the Obama Administration that the way to stop the narrowing of the curriculum is to test everything. In fact, the chancellor in Washington, D.C., the other day announced she plans to do exactly that. That means less time for instruction, more time for testing, and a worse education for everyone.

Some of us have worried about this trend for years - I remember a group of elementary school art teachers asking their state for a test on art so their classes would not be eliminated. As it happens, my course is one in which there is a test that has high stakes - students in theory must not only pass a government course but also a state test in government in order to graduate from high school (although the latter requirement has some loopholes). Let me say that for too many students their course in government gets reduced, especially in the Spring as the test approaches, to drill and kill, practice for the test. For a subject that should excite them, because it has direct affect on their lives, they get bored and frustrated.

In speaking out, I have consistently warned about the riskiness of school choice. Its benefits are vastly overstated. It undercuts public education by enabling charter schools to skim the best students in poor communities. As our society pursues these policies, we will develop a bifurcated system, one for the haves, another for the have-nots, and politicians have the nerve to boast about such an outcome.

Public schools, as I said before, are a cornerstone of our democratic society. If we chip away at support for them, we erode communal responsibility for a vital public institution.

Bifurcated - even worse than what we have by geography, where wealthy communities have excellent public schools rich in resources and the students have access to all kinds of elective courses, and poor communities, whether in inner cities, inner rings of suburbs or the hinterlands, lacking equipment, with decaying buildings, and overwhelmed with students arriving st school with less background and current problems.

democratic society - if we really believe in it, economics would not be the sole basis on which we make arguments about our schools.

Last year, a major evaluation showed that one out of every six charters will get better results, five out of six charters will get no different results or worse results than the regular public schools. A report released just a couple of weeks ago by Mathematica Policy Research once again shows charter middle schools do not get better results than regular public middle schools.
Unfortunately, the general media coverage of the Mathematica report was badly flawed, focused on the schools that did 'better' while not including any of the caveats about even these schools. Charters COULD be used to offer alternative ways of teaching/learning to specific groups of students. Diane's next two paragraphs are very important:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, on whose board I served for seven years, has tested charter schools since 2003. In 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009, charter schools were compared to regular public schools and have never shown an advantage over regular public schools. Charter schools, contrary to Bill Gates, are not more innovative than regular public schools. The business model and methods of charter schools is this — longer school days, longer hours, longer weeks, and about 95 percent of charter schools are non-union.

Teachers are hired and fired at will. Teachers work 50, 60, 70 hours a week. They are expected to burn out after two or three years when they can be replaced. No pension worries, no high salaries. This is not a template for American education.

NAEP is the national report card on education. It is considered the gold standard of educational evaluation. It does not show that charters do better. One reason why some "reformers" like charters is that in many states they are a way around unions, and their teachers can be fired at will.

Let me skip down a bit:
And perhaps we should begin demanding that school districts be held accountable for providing the resources that schools need. Just like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top requires and pressures districts to close low-performing schools. The overwhelming majority of low-performing schools enroll students in poverty and students who don’t speak English and students who are homeless and transient. Very often, these schools have heroic staffs who are working with society’s neediest children. These teachers deserve praise, not pink slips. Closing schools weakens communities. It’s not a good idea to weaken communities. No school was ever improved by closing it.

Reread that please. Yes, you will read stories that supposedly focus on "high-performing" schools dealing with such students. In some cases the claims for high performance are based on selective use of data. In most cases the schools on which such focus is made get more resources (as do many charters), have longer days, etc. The "success" is claimed on the basis of test scores. What is not yet offered is any evidence that there are long-term gains in learning: that the students are developing skills and knowledge that they can apply outside of the test environment. Meanwhile we reconstitute schools. We use one of the four models approved by this administration, even though NONE has any research to demonstrate that they improve education.

There are passages about the right to unionize, which Diane supports, but which "reformers" oppose. Read this paragraph, and perhaps you will understand two things, (1) why teachers are reacting so positively towards Diane; and (2) why we feel unfairly besieged, that the playing field is tilted:
I have spoken out repeatedly to defend the right of teachers to join unions for their protection and the protection of the teaching profession. Teachers have a right to a collective voice in the political process. It’s the American way. I don’t see the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post or the pundits complaining about the charter school lobby. I don’t see them complaining about the investment bankers lobby, or any other group that speaks on behalf of its members. Only teachers’ unions are demonized these days.

Teachers, and those who support them, ARE being demonized. By constrast, Hedge Fund managers (who are making major investments in things like charter schools for tax benefits) and Wall Street Firms (who came close to destroying the economy of this nation and the international community) get bailed out with our tax dollars, continue to pay bonuses, and spend millions to prevent appropriate oversight and regulation. Then they want to have a voice telling us how we should teach, how our schools should be run.

There is so much of value in the speech. By now I hope I have at least convinced you to take the time to read the entire thing.

Let me offer only a few more snippets, skipping over some very important material:

Around the world, those nations that are successful recognize that the best way to improve school is to improve the education profession. We need expert teachers, not a steady influx of novices.
One argument against Teach for America, for example. Now if those in that program actually stayed in teaching, people like Ravitch and me would have far fewer objections. The constant turnover in the schools in which they serve is unfair to those kids. The program benefits many in the TFA corps, and it certainly benefits TFA. It is not clear that the students are getting all that much benefit, and the model is not something that can really address the needs of the millions of students in inner city and rural schools.

The current so-called reform movement is pushing bad ideas. No high-performing nation in the world is privatizing its schools, closing its schools, and inflicting high-stakes testing on every subject on its children. The current reform movement wants to end tenure and seniority, to weaken the teaching profession, to silence teachers’ unions, to privatize large sectors of public education. Don’t let it happen.
The consequences of letting these "reforms" go forward unchallenged will be great damages far beyond the arena of public education. It will be further destruction of what is left of the union movement in this country. It will be increased privatization of what is left of the commons in this country/ It will be a narrowing of opportunity for too many of our young people. It will diminish us as a people as our young people receive narrower and narrower educations.

Diane urges those listening to her to be politically active, to remind people that there are millions of teachers, we vote, and so do our families, to not support anyone who is an opponent of public education.

Stand up to the attacks on public education. Don’t give them half a loaf, because they will be back the next day for another slice, and the day after that for another slice.

Don’t compromise. Stand up for teachers. Stand up public education, and say “No mas, no mas." Thank you.

Diane Ravitch received a rousing ovation for this speech. As a teacher, as a UNIONIZED teacher in a public school, I understand why.

I thought it important that as many people as possible encounter HER words, not just cursory news accounts. I think it important that voices that speak for teachers and for public schools be given as much of an audience as those who have described themselves as 'reformers' and seek to suppress or denigrate any opposing point of view.

That is why I asked Diane, a friend, if I could quote extensively. That is why Diane told me "You are free to cite or quote whatever you wish."

Thanks for reading.

Please pass on the link for her speech.