2013: Taking Stock and Looking Forward

Am I a hedgehog or a fox?

Certainly my life choices reflect a fox. At four or five, people would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I had no idea. By the time I was a teenager, I knew this lack of focus, this tendency to be relatively good at a bunch of things but outstanding (at my own level) at nothing in particular, was going to be a problem. I’ve had four or five separate occupations, several of which I describe in this post, an essay that pretty much says “fox” from start to finish—as does my essay on acquiring content knowledge through reading, I think. For a person with little ambition, I’ve successfully used my brains to make a decent living in those four or five occupations; for eighteen years I averaged 25 hour work weeks (in tech, averaged over the year, in tutoring, over the month) and raised a son on the income. (I work more hours now as a teacher, but I also get paid vacations, something I had only five years out of the previous thirty.)

Until I began tutoring and then teaching, I never felt I was using more than a fraction of my intellect and almost none of my interest. Teaching test prep and then tutoring in a wide range of areas, in contrast, grabbed me from the start. I was using the full range of my intellect, first to learn two major tests and the middle and high school curricula in three subjects. Then, when I started teaching, I was fascinated by the challenges of developing curriculum and engaging and motivating students, to name just two of many job attractions.

But in teaching, I’m a fox as well, teaching three subjects, test prep even now in four major tests (twelve earlier in my career), and morph pretty effortlessly from one subject to another, day to day and, back when I was a tutor, hour to hour. I’m not trying to win converts to any subject other than classic films. No hedgehog as a teacher, certainly. Teaching has given my writing focus and purpose; I have actually stopped looking for tutoring work because I have more time for writing.

Despite all this, as a thinker and writer, I see myself as a hedgehog. Yes, you can laugh. But this collection of essays is premised entirely on the Voldemort View, that all the policy, all the teacher training, all the curriculum arguments run up against the reality of cognitive ability, and that our refusal to accept this reality is having terrible consequences.

Everything I write begins with that premise.

And yet. I’ve convinced a good many people that teachers aren’t low-achieving, scoffed at the pretend fuss over the lack of minority teachers, but also argue that teacher intelligence, past a certain level, doesn’t appear to be that important. I routinely remind my readers that students in the middle third of the cognitive spectrum forget most of what they were taught, that teaching algebra is like banging your head with a whiteboard, and that no one has had success teaching advanced math to the moderately retarded, but I also talk about the joys of teaching kids with low motivation and low (for high school) cognitive ability. I’ve been arguing, lately, that many recent Asian immigrants are not as smart as their test scores might indicate, and am starting to wonder if black ability might not in some cases, underrepresented by test scores. IQ purists scoff at my opinion that we haven’t really investigated how, and what, we can teach people with lower than average cognitive ability—more than one reader has derided my comment here as goofy idealism.

I get all that, but they all feel linked to the same idea. While I don’t write about other subjects much, I have the same notion: a small number of fundamental ideas inform all my opinions. I have changed my mind on these fundamental ideas, and it’s always a pretty big deal for me, something I remember and acknowledge. That sounds more hedgehoggish than fox, someone who is driven by central ideas, as opposed to a million flexible gametime decisions about important issues as they arise.

So I feel like a hedgehog, but any examination of my life or interests leads inexorably to the fox.

Isaiah Berlin originated the fox/hedgehog paradigm to explore Tolstoy’s psyche: “Tolstoy, in Berlin’s telling, was torn between the hedgehog’s quest for a single truth and the fox’s acceptance of many and, at times, incommensurable truths.” Berlin argues that Tolstoy’s final years were ruined because he wanted to be a hedgehog but could not deny his essential foxiness.

Well, I ain’t ruining my second half being fussed by deciding which side of the dichotomy I fit in with. But I will say this: time and again, I find that people build “if…then” constructs from fundamental ideas that I didn’t sign on to. These people are then annoyed at me for backtracking, inconsistency, or some other sin of logic.

So, for example, the basic Voldemort View: Mean differences in group IQs are the most likely explanation for the achievement gap in racial and SES groups. Or, cognitive ability is the chief determinant of academic ability and other life outcomes.

People build all sorts of “if…thens” from this. If IQ is not malleable, then a high IQ group is superior and more desirable than a low IQ group. If cognitive ability determines academic academic, then it’s not worth educating people with lower cognitive abilities. If higher test scores, then higher academic ability. If smarter, then better. And a host of others.

Hell, no. I’m not backtracking. I’m not in denial. I’m saying, categorically, that these things do not necessarily follow. I refuse to accept all those if…then constructs just because I accept the reality of cognitive ability. No superiority or preference follows directly. I can pick and choose the if…then constructs that interest me from that point–and none of the ones above interest me at all. And I can change my mind–for example, I’ve become noticeably more skeptical of higher test scores (although I still think in the main they’re good).

Of course, maybe that refusal to lock in the “if…thens” is what makes me a fox. Huh.

Anyway. The point of all this is to introduce the essays that got the most traffic this year. The numbers are from the last 365 days only. I have made the cutoff 1500 views—whoo hoo! (well, close. I let a 1490 slip in.) Just under half of them (10 out of 22) were written last year. I am not bothered by this. Many of my posts have high information content, others are used by teachers as lesson guides. Google likes me a lot. But I only wrote 61 posts this year, an average of 5 per month.

Traffic growth was huge.

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
12 2878 1326 932 912 1107 3764 6485 10303 5466 5986 14574 13851 67584
23 11846 9416 11386 18306 22891 12032 14086 23491 19077 26747 27296 19265 215839

As I said when the blog hit 200,000 views, this seems like a tremendous amount of activity for someone who barely averages five posts a month. I was reading Old Andrew’s retrospective, since he’s another teacher who writes about policy (as do Paul Bruno and Harry Webb), and he mentioned that his traffic grew substantially. Andrew stays focused on a few key topics, and really was a go-to blog for OFSTED issues this year (I only vaguely know what OFSTED is, but it’s something English). Well, I’m not really a go-to blog for anything. I’ve definitely written a number of go-to essays, but that’s not the same thing. I’m not focused enough to be a go-to blog for a particular issue. (There it is, fox again.) Given the random nature of my subject matter, I find my traffic levels astounding.

I have been very pleased at the development of the comments section. Several recent posts saw seventy or more comments and some active discussions.

Goals for next year:

  • Try to average 6 essays a month.
  • Grit my teeth and finish essays that got stalled. I have at least ten draft posts with lots of research that I never get around to completing.
  • Review the major topics I write on and set myself some goals to further develop some of the ideas. I am well aware that I haven’t finished my series on Asian immigrants (see the previous bullet), but I never even started some plans I had to write on reform math, and high school curriculum.
  • Continue developing some of the strands I started in late November and December on different educational reform philosophies
  • Evaluate what the next steps are for getting an even wider reader base.
  • Write more under my own name. I did that more through August, but I now have four different essays in draft form.
  • Dote upon the granddaughter who will be making her appearance in May. Please tell me I look far too young to be a grandparent.

Hope my new readers will check out the essays below. I refuse to say it’s a fox list. But it’s….eclectic.

Asian Immigrants and What No One Mentions Aloud 10/08/13    6,663
Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat 04/05/13    6,305
The Dark Enlightenment and Me 04/28/13    4,532
Core Meltdown Coming 11/19/13    4,063
Kashawn Campbell 08/26/13    3,631
Homework and grades. 02/06/12    3,380
Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing 08/19/12    3,076
The Gap in the GRE 01/28/12    2,964
Why Most of the Low Income “Strivers” are White 03/18/13    2,499
Noahpinion on IQ–or maybe just no knowledge. 10/31/13    2,408
College Admissions, Race, and Unintended Consequences 09/01/13    2,373
Dan Meyer and the Gatekeepers 08/01/13    2,334
SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else 08/17/12    2,293
The myth of “they weren’t ever taught….” 07/01/12    2,186
About 01/01/12    1,929
Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II 01/05/12    1,899
Jason Richwine and Goring the Media’s Ox 05/12/13    1,896
Not Why This. Just Why Not That. 11/30/13    1,839
Binomial Multiplication, etc 09/14/12    1,824
The Voldemort View 01/06/12    1,736
An Asian Revelation 06/28/13    1,669
Banging Your Head With a Whiteboard 05/11/12    1,490


About educationrealist

14 responses to “2013: Taking Stock and Looking Forward

  • LBK

    People build all sorts of “if…thens” from this. If IQ is not malleable, then a high IQ group is superior and more desirable than a low IQ group. If cognitive ability determines academic academic, then it’s not worth educating people with lower cognitive abilities. If higher test scores, then higher academic ability. If smarter, then better. And a host of others.

    Just substitute “athletic” for “cognitive” or “academic” and see how much sense these “if. . . thens” make. Should all of us not possessed of upper quartile athletic abilitiy just sit on the couch? Should we deny the existence of varying levels of athletic ability? hahahahaha. Should we believe that the more athletic the “better”? Why are academics the area where unequal outcomes are the result of unacceptable flaws in the system rather than of unequal abilities?

    We are all equal, but we’re not all the same.

    • educationrealist

      . For example, we’re equal, but you’re an idiot who apparently can read without understanding.

      • Laura Jack

        A very ad hominem response.
        I think we agree that differences in academic ability not only exist but would quite possibly be more easily mitigated if those differences were acknowledged.
        I do not understand why society is easily able to acknowledge differences in athletic ability without jumping to conclusions about overall superiority but is unable to do the same for academic ability. We seem quite ready to believe that academic differences MUST be the fault of flaws in the system while athletic differences are just nature or nurture or both.
        Before your reply, I thought I wanted to hear your opinion on that.

      • educationrealist

        I agree with all that. I get impatient with people who think I’m trying to excuse or mitigate or back away from cognitive abilities. The previous commenter was sneering at me for apparently not being bold enough–as if it’s inevitable that different cognitive abilities = inferior or less desirable.

        And yes, we do seem ready to believe it, because the ramifications are quite worrying. Many of the people who deny it probably agree with the previous commenter

      • Laura Jack

        I didn’t read the comment that way at all. Seemed to me he was analogizing athletic ability with academic ability and wondering why we can’t treat them the same way. And his only real question was “Why are academics the [only] area where unequal outcomes are the result of unacceptable flaws in the system rather than of unequal abilities?”

        I do agree with him on that. To continue his analogy, I will never achieve even a 5.2 40 speed, and that won’t be the fault of the ‘system’ or the coach(teacher). It is attributable to a lack of athletic ability. The difference is that no one will say that my lack of speed is a sign of inferiority, and no one should say that an IQ of 85 is a sign of inferiority. And just as I shouldn’t use my lack of athletic potential as an excuse to sit on my butt, my hypothetical 85 IQ student shouldn’t use that as an excuse to do nothing.

        As it happens I firmly believe that we are all equal in the eyes of God, but it’s quite stupid to pretend that we’re all the same in every area – academically, athletically, musically, reading comprehension etc. etc, since it so obviously is not so. And we as a society value lots of people for abilities that aren’t academic – Peyton Manning, Jay-Z, Billy Graham, Jeremy Clarkson, Beyonce, Alec Baldwin, Michael Jordan . . .

        Like I said, I’d like to hear your answer to his question instead of snark. And I’d be interested to know if you think there’s any effective way to make even a small difference in this area. For example, I am a contract employee who works ~20 hr weeks by choice. I am quite good at math and my kids are all even better. When the last one left I started tutoring 6th grade math to “disadvantaged” students through my church. I can’t decide if it’s more like banging my head on the wall or spitting in the ocean, and I’m about to decide that I could help more by working more hours and therefore paying more taxes. But if you have any suggestions, I’ll certainly listen. You’ve already taught me quite a bit about visual learning techniques.

  • dingus

    Looking forward to another year of your writing. Congrats on the granddaughter!

    • educationrealist

      Thanks! I’m really looking forward to having a new generation in the family. Plus, I’m first to grandkids in my family. My brother beat me to having kids by 7 months, and I’m the oldest. So my place of honor has been restored.

  • Peter

    There’s only so much you can say about your writing under your real name, feel free to not respond to this comment, but I have to ask, what kind of things do you write about?

  • SJ

    I remember you said that you’d written some unfinished essay about the Ron Unz Ivy League piece. I bet a lot of people would be interested in that one.

  • Sideways

    Sign seen at non-exclusive preschool in wealthy suburb (just saw this, my daughter was there last year)

    “It’s beginning to look alot [sic] like winter” (also a very Jewish suburb, if you’re wondering about the “winter” part)

    Yep, that’s the sort of pre-K education the poor just don’t have access to.

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