31 May 2011

True Things We Never Say

1. Earth's natural resources are unlimited and munificent (okay, that one's been said, but can't be said enough);

2. Books are not sacred. They are physical objects without inherent meaning and do not embody the ideas expressed within themselves. If you need to get rid of a bunch of books, you could do worse than a bonfire.

3. In a literate society, teaching children is unskilled labor.


erp said...

Define skilled labor.

David said...

Without training or skill.

Harry Eagar said...

Don't agree about teachers. I can show examples of teachers who inspire.

And I think it is worth respecting books, as proxies for intellectual investment. Besides, how do you tell when you are no longer going to need a book?

And we are running out of helium, due to free market profligacy.

So I don't think any of those things are true.

David said...

Saying that teachers are unskilled is not saying that they are all bad or all identical. I, too, have had inspiring teachers. That doesn't change the fact that, if you want to teach a bunch of kids to show up on time and recite the alphabet, any random person on the street could do the job.

I can't tell, so I only throw them away when I'm running out of space. That happens at least once a year. Also about once a year, I buy a copy of a book that I already own because I can't find my copy. Nothing is more fungible than a book and while books as a concept might be a symbol of something or the other, no individual book is anything but a collection of paper and ink.

If we were running out of helium, it wouldn't mean my statement is wrong, because I didn't say we would never run out of anything ever. Nonetheless, we are not running out of helium. Helium makes up about 7% of natural gas deposits and we have at least 300 years of natural gas proven reserves.

The brouhaha a few hears ago, when there were a flurry of articles saying we were running out of helium appears to have nothing to do with the market. Rather, it seems to have been caused by complaints that the market price was too low because the US government had decided to empty our Strategic Helium Reserve (I kid you not) by supplying all government helium needs without respect for the market price.

erp said...

David, I believe you defined "unskilled" labor. That's an easy one. Define skilled labor as it applies to teaching children.

Bret said...

"...if you want to teach a bunch of kids to show up on time and recite the alphabet, any random person on the street could do the job."

Those "random" people can and do teach.

Home schooled children do better on test scores than public school taught children on average and the parents usually have no training is teaching - in other words they are unskilled in teaching.

erp said...

Bret, the proof of the pudding being in the eating, the parents you speak of are skilled at teaching. What they aren't, is credentialed and sanctioned by the state organized edbiz -- a big plus in my opinion.

Bret said...


I'm going to disagree. Kids are naturally skilled at learning. In fact, they are learning machines (every child learns to walk and talk and count almost no matter what with virtually no assistance needed from anyone else). All you have to do is make reasonably good resources available, give 'em a bit of encouragement, answer some of their questions, and get the hell out of their way and they'll learn and learn.

What they WON'T learn is that big government is wonderful, progressive ideas are great, bureaucrats should be worshiped, free markets are evil, religion is evil, etc. and that's why we need public schools - to teach them those important things. /sarc

erp said...

Well Bret,when you put it that way,I guess I'll agree that the professionals in the school know how to indoctrinate their charges, but if you've seen kids who aren't encouraged and taught by parents who care, their natural interest in the learning is stunted usually by third grade.

Brit said...

Controlling a classroom is very skilled labour.

Bret said...

Like a prison guard is skilled labor, I suppose.

Peter said...

This is quite the eclectic post. What a combo. I can't decide if it is the fruit of brilliant minds pushing the envelope in a strategic management seminar or a grumpy middle-aged man tossing out downers at a family reunion dinner. Believing as I do that any random person on the street can do strategic management, maybe it's the same thing.

If your jibe at teachers is a shot at artifical accreditation to protect union jobs, that's fine, but the fact that teaching the early grades is as much art as science doesn't mean it's akin to unskilled labour any more than coaching a successful sports team is. If they can, parents will go to great lengths to steer their kids to a good teacher and avoid a bad one. They know the difference even if the decision usually doesn't have much to do with the number of child psychology courses the teacher has taken. Bret's characterization of children's natural learning aptitudes sounds like the mission statement of a hippy-dippy alternative school from the seventies. Just give them a hug and a gentle nudge and watch them learn, learn, learn!!! Give me a break.

To point to home schooling as proof is like saying anyone can be a successful mediator who has brokered their children's squabbles. It's great that folks have the right to home school, but there is no need to pretend it only has upsides or is always successful.

As to books, look, if you want to dabble in philistine deconstructionalism, bully for you, but do try to remember you are supposed to be a conservative. I'm worried we'll soon see a post in which you encourage mothers to nurse in public because "What's the big deal, they're just masses of skin and tissue?".

Nice showstopper, Harry. Reminds me of of the "Plastics" line from The Graduate. I was wondering why my corner store always seems to be out of helium.

erp said...

Ah, Peter, well said, especially the part about teaching small children being more art than science. IMO the same can be said about life in general.

David said...

erp: I don't think that there is such a thing as "skill" when it comes to teaching children. There is experience, there is motivation, and then there are one-offs, which account for everything we think of as skill.

If there were a skill, it would be testable, predictable and repeatable, like carpentry, a much more highly skilled occupation.

David said...


I'm not sure why you assume I'll be hypocritical about this. Not any random person could teach strategic management, but fairly close. I'd say any random college graduate or any random manager could pretty easily. Certainly, any random lawyer could.

There are subjects taught in college that do reward special training; mostly the hard sciences and accounting. Frankly, though, any college course taught from a textbook could be taught by any layman without the student take-away being much affected.

On the other hand, I suspect only pilots can teach flying.

I should also note that we do actually know something about this. About 80% of the variance in standardized tests are attributable to individual differences between the students; about 20% are attributable to the teacher.

Also, while parochial and private school teachers are not any random person, they are not required to take educational courses in college or be licensed by the state; they are not, in other words, trained. Anyone willing to argue that training makes public school teachers better?

Peter said...

Anyone willing to argue that training makes public school teachers better?

Certainly not I, especially seeing as the motivation for my comment was to defend my unaccredited private school teacher wife, whose uncommon success has been so frequently and effusively proclaimed by parents and students that I have earned shameless bragging rights. Although much of what goes into a teacher's success cannot be taught, that doesn't mean it is unskilled labour or that anybody (or even any parent)could do it as well. There is also a big energy and stamina factor. And let's not forget that teacher training can be very useful in running interference between the kids and administrators, Oprah-loving parents, principals and members of the caring professions. Gotta know the enemy.

Bret said...

Peter wrote: "There is also a big energy and stamina factor [with teaching]..."

Yes, with manual ditch digging also.

Your wife's a teacher. Perhaps you're a little (or a lot) biased?

erp said...

David, I must disagree.

Good teachers like good carpenters, good lawyers, good pilots* and good pundits just seem to know what to do and how to do it.

Human output can't be measured and a template made of their methods so others can follow it.

I think many people become teachers because, unlike most other jobs, the hours and pay are good and the work seems easy. Not surprisingly, those folks are usually not very successful.

*In the case of pilots, I sure hope the potentially bad ones are weeded out before they start flying over our heads.

Harry Eagar said...

'All you have to do is make reasonably good resources available, give 'em a bit of encouragement, answer some of their questions, and get the hell out of their way and they'll learn and learn.'

This appears to shoot down the No Child Left Behind theory of education.

Peter said...

Perhaps you're a little (or a lot) biased?

Guilty as charged, Bret, assuming by "biased" you mean I have actually been exposed extensively to many teachers and the multi-facted world they inhabit. Not like, say, strategic managers. I don't know any except David, and I really don't have a clue what they do, so I'm clearly qualified to opine on them impartially.

David said...

Well, in all honesty, I'm not a manager and am not particularly strategic.

Peter said...

Then, Sir, you are obviously well qualified for the profession. Say, I wonder whether Bret would argue that strategic management is akin to unskilled labour because all kinds of people manage their households strategically without formal training.

Peter said...

BTW, David, is everybody ok down there after yesterday?

David said...

We're all fine, thanks for asking.

I did drive the Jeep to campus yesterday with the top off, and then had to drive home through the same thunderstorm that spawned the tornados. To my credit, I did notice that it seemed windier than usual.

Bret said...

Peter wrote: "I have actually been exposed extensively to many teachers ..."

That's true for everyone since we all went to school for umpteen years. My personal extensive exposure to teachers was mostly unpleasant and a large net negative in terms of learning.

I know that teachers generally think they are doing wonderful things. I know that lots of people tell them that too. I also know that for a lot classroom situations, it's an illusion. Two examples: I got very good grades in school and my teachers all thought they deserved lots of credit for how much I learned which was utter BS since I would've learned far more if I wasn't forced to sit there, be miserable, and look out the window for 7 hours everyday - indeed I did learn far more per unit time before I started kindergarten and after I graduated from college; my sister-in-law was a nanny and one day she gloriously announced that she had taught her charge to walk because she had massaged and moved his legs around in just the right way every day, yet we can be pretty sure that the little boy would probably have learned to walk, just like every other child in the world, even without her manipulations. Teachers think they teach, but for the most part it's an illusion.

Peter wonder: "I wonder whether Bret would argue that strategic management..."

Sorry. I'm not exactly sure what you mean by strategic management and I really have no idea why it's even vaguely relevant to my statements or David's post. So no, I really can't argue anything about it.

David said...

Strategic Management is an academic discpline combining economics, psychology and sociology to explains why some businesses perform better than other businesses.

When I get my PhD, it will be in Strategic Management.

Peter keeps bringing it up because he seems to assume that I think that teaching strategic management, which I do, takes special training and skills. But I don't.

Harry Eagar said...

I'd probably be an engineer today if some math prof I didn't know hadn't gotten kidney failure in the middle of my calculus course.

They juggled assignments around to cover for him, and I lost the instruction of Achmed Hoomani, a grad student and superb teacher.

His replacement was a lousy teacher. And thus sputtered out my trip through mathematics.

Just because Bret had lousy teachers does not imply that there are not good teachers. I'll match my lousy teachers against his any day. At least his probably weren't trying to teach him stuff that wasn't so, which is something I cannot say about the priests and nuns who taught me.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

Yes, I agree, some teachers are better than other teachers. I'm sure some ditch diggers are better than other ditch diggers. And yet, hand any random person a shovel or a piece of chalk, and they're going to get the essential tasks of the job done.

Harry: I agree, once you get to college, and even arguably high school, there are subjects for which teachers must know more than some random person. But that is knowledge about the substance of the course, not knowledge about teaching. Even at public schools, college teachers receive either no training or remarkably little training.

Peter said...

Of course, biographical and autobiographical literature is full of poignant odes and thankful references to the formative influence a beloved, favourite ditch digger had on the subject's life.

Harry Eagar said...

Even in grammar school, kids don't just pick stuff up. Nobody ever learned long division by fooling around.

I suggest you read Roger Ascham's 'The Schoolmaster' (written around 1570).

The number of crackpot pedagogical practices is nearly infinite, but that doesn't mean there are not some good ones.

It is not merely a matter of inspiration.

My brother was involved in a program to get auto engineers to earn master's degrees. It's a complicate story, but the point for this discussion is, of the first 50 students, 48 did not get their degrees.

The teachers rethought their approach, and of the next 50, 48 made it.

erp said...

Harry, that's not quite true. My father, one of the smartest people I ever knew, only went to the 3rd grade in the small/tiny Albanian town of Korce, but he followed every bit of the math I took right through college. Even though he didn't understand the methodology, he sure understood the concepts. I still remember laughing when I explained what Geometry was, he said, why do you have to learn about this? Doesn’t everybody already know it?

He did all calculations in his head because he didn't know how to do long division or subtraction the way we were taught. When calculators first came out, my husband, the CPA, who was a whiz with them, would race him adding a long column of numbers. The “boss,” as he was called, always won handily. Calmly jotting down the total while the professional numbers man was still pecking at the keys.

It’s people like my father who divised a simple way for people like us to learn skills like long division.

Bret said...

"Nobody ever learned long division by fooling around."

erp beat me to it, but by definition, at least one person learned long division "by fooling around" or else nobody would know how to do it. And if one person can figure it out on their own, why not everybody else?

Harry Eagar said...

Why not everybody else?

Because not everybody else does?

Because hardly anybody else does?

Because most of what we know was arrived at by trial and error, and it would be stupid to keep repeating the errors?

Bret said...

The value of figuring out how to reinvent it (and therefore how to invent technique in general) far exceeds actually learning how to do long division.

When was the last time you actually did long division? It's not a useful skill in an off itself in the age of smart phones (with built in calculators) that you always have with you.

Harry Eagar said...

As a matter of fact, I do long division just about every working day.

It is my habit, as a reporter, to take all statements of the form '150,000 children are murdered in ;America every year and their bodies are unclaimed' and divide that out to see how many that would mean in my community.

This is a fast check on whether the statement is plausible.

And, yes, that exact statement was made. I fought like hell to keep it from being reported in the paper I was then working on, but was overruled.

And I do it with pencil and paper because I am accustomed to do it that way.

Bret said...

I stand corrected.

Does anybody else besides Harry do long division with any frequency?

I probably haven't done long division in 30 years. I often do approximate division in my head, but never long division with pencil and paper.

erp said...

Bret, I frequently do guess-timates like Harry when I see numbers, usually statistics, reported by the media (or even in books) because so often, just at first glance, they seem preposterous.

If I want an accurate calculation, I rarely resort to pencil and paper because like everyone else, a calculating device is usually closer at hand than a pad and pencil.

Well that and because I can't even remember the multiplication tables with any accuracy anymore. ;-{

Bret said...


I do guess-timates. Harry does actual long division with pencil and paper.

Hey Skipper said...

Late to the fight here -- I have been where electricity does not go.

3. In a literate society, teaching children is unskilled labor.

I think that statement qualifies as question begging: the proposition ("… teaching children is unskilled labor …") is implicit in the premise ("In a literate society …").

Literacy is the skill; that most people have learned it does not make literacy an unskill.

If the assertion above is meaningful, then this one is also: In a literate society, since teaching children is unskilled labor, an unskilled person, such as the Detroit Superintendent of Schools, can teach children.

Clearly teaching is a combination of art and skill. Since the literacy required to teach children to their potential isn't particularly great, good teachers are distinguished from bad primarily through their art -- successfully controlling a classroom probably can't be taught. But put a class of second graders under the tutelage of an illiterate will quickly demonstrate that skill, common though it may be, is essential.

On the other hand, I suspect only pilots can teach flying.

Which is absolutely true, and not at all different from saying only the literate can teach literacy.

*In the case of pilots, I sure hope the potentially bad ones are weeded out before they start flying over our heads.

Rest mostly assured. In military pilot training, the government is writing the checks. Those students who cannot keep pace, which means consuming not much more than the allocated amount of training in the specified time, get washed out.

In the civilian world, you can get as much training as your checkbook can withstand; the less apt can get through. However, there are still pretty rigorous standards, particularly past the private pilot stage, which pretty much eliminate the unskillable.

[All you have to do is make reasonably good resources available, give 'em a bit of encouragement, answer some of their questions] appears to shoot down the No Child Left Behind theory of education.

Underlying NCLB is the premise that teaching is essentially a production process, and you determine the quality of the process by measuring the output. Where the output is inadequate, then the process itself must be at fault.

So of course the teacher unions hate it.


Does anybody else besides Harry do long division with any frequency?

The airplane I fly is capable of directly displaying flight path angle. During the descent and arrival phases of flight, I do mental long division -- thousands of feet to lose divided by distance in nautical miles to lose it yields the instantaneous angle the airplane must fly. There are two goals: optimum energy management, and to comply with ATC constraints.

Airplanes that can display FPA can also do this math for themselves, so mostly it is a backup to make sure the machine hasn't suddenly become unskilled -- which occasionally happens. However, short notice clearance changes, or clearances without a specific path, will mean the machine will have the perfect solution too late, or not have enough information for the solution.

Almost no pilots use this skill.

Harry Eagar said...

Long division with paper and pencil -- or, if you can manage it, in your head -- is a useful check against errors.

The decimal/metric system is sadly prone to creating fatal dosage errors with medicine, for example. Dividing it out on paper can (sometimes) catch the error.

Even if you never work a long division problem after leaving the sixth grade, the knowledge of how to do it will be necessary off and on throughout your life.

My father told me a story that has stuck with me. In his first year at Georgia Tech, the final in one of his courses consisted of a single problem.

The teacher required not only a solution but a check of the work. My father understood the solution, worked it out but didn't do the check.

There was a simple math error that he didn't catch and he failed the course.

NCLB was a typically loony Bush plan because it assumed that all children in all classes are equally prepared for and interested in taking that class, which is nonsense.

He made exactly the same category error in Iraq by assuming that all people everywhere are equally interested in and prepared to 'be free.'

erp said...

Bush, is there anything he can't do to mess things up according to Harry.

If there is a skill in edbiz, it should be to identify kids of ability and design programs to excite their interest. Instead all the emphasis in the public schools is on bottom of the student pool, not the top.

Bret, BTW congrats on your alma mater MIT students developing a new kind of battery for running "electric" cars.

Apparently old fashioned American ingenuity isn't dead.

Hey Skipper said...

NCLB was a typically loony Bush plan because it assumed that all children in all classes are equally prepared for and interested in taking that class, which is nonsense.

Your assumption about the assumption is rather suspect.

Think of public education as a production process, with factories scattered across the land. An essential element of ascertaining factory effectiveness is to measure its output.

In an ideal world, all schools-as-factories would have student bodies which had identical learning distributions. Obviously, we do not live in this ideal world.

Which yields the point of the exercise: where learning outcomes are significantly different -- worse, that is -- then that means the production process is less effective.

The question then becomes: why?

There are many possibilities. Certainly, inadequate resources is at the top of every liberal's list. After that, what? Pernicious effects of teacher's unions; single parent families rampant; cultural disfunction; incompetent school administrations, etc.

Solving the problem requires, first and foremost, finding the problem and its magnitude in the first place.

Do you want an illiterate Superintendent of Schools in Maui?

He made exactly the same category error in Iraq by assuming that all people everywhere are equally interested in and prepared to 'be free.'

The strategic case for deposing Saddam, with substantial summarizing, would run for pages, and not ever once mention how interested people everywhere are in being free.

erp said...

Skipper, you're so right and the very reason we have this annoying problem of millions of people crossing our borders and willing to risk everything to come here because they want to be free, but if Harry and his friends have their way, they can save themselves the bother because there won't be a free country left on earth. We'll all be faceless cogs in the paradisiacal wheel of socialism.

Harry Eagar said...

Well, I certainly didn't say the Iraqis want to be free, and I wouldn't because it isn't so. Bush said that.

He could have set out to depose Saddam, if that was his goal, in simpler ways.

As for schools, I don't think your factory analogy is very close. In a factory, inputs are pretty uniform.

Farms would be better. Inputs are not uniform across the country in farming, and no one expects similar outputs of oranges in Florida and Wisconsin.

NCLB operatess as if you can get oranges anywhere just by replacing the farmers with better farmers.

It was, as I said, loony and typical of Bush.

You don't even have to make it spatial. Hawaii has a wide variety of student inputs all in the same place, and over the generations it was notorious that some populations -- Filipinos from the teens through the '60s, for example -- had little or no interest in school learning.

They were from rural, peasant backgrounds and there was a strong social predisposition to continue that in a new land.

From the '60s on, though, Filipino immigrants were increasingly from more educated and urban groups, with powerful incentives to get educated.

The inputs changed dramatically, and so did the outputs, without any change in particular in the school resources, teachers, administration or funding.

I could multiply examples endlessly, and not only from Hawaii.