"Robo-grading” (with apologies to Dr. Asimov and Sir Clarke)

  • A grading robot must never seek to evaluate the depth of a student’s thinking on an essay.
  • A grading robot must obey orders given it by a teacher except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A grading robot must protect its purpose as long as such purpose does not conflict with the First or Second Law.  

Tired of grading endless, mind-numbing, pointless, and grammatically incorrect papers? Then, the automated grading robot is the answer to all of your problems!  

Everyone, including reporter Stephanie Simon in her recent article “Robo-readers:the new teachers’ helper in the U.S.”, knows that “American high school students are terrible writers”, and we educators need all the help we can get!!

Don’t we?

Proponents of the software contend that having students write more will help them write more effectively, and that by using this software, teachers can assign more without having to deal with the grading.  Is that what we want?  Really?

I’m on the fence with the idea that writing more = better writing when it comes to high-schoolers, actually.  They will chuck out the most meaningless drivel in the shortest amount of time as long as aforesaid meaningless drivel gets them a grade. 

In the average adolescent mindset (not all, certainly), the primary driving force is “Git-r-dun.”  And with the increase in assignments, that same driving force is going to go into even higher gear, thus completely missing the original goals. We feed into this mindset by assigning more and more and more of the same, not unlike...robots.

We don’t need students to write more to get them to become better writers, we need them to think better. Sorry, Robo-Grader, while you may be able to determine that a student has actually plunked an idea down on the paper properly using a semi-colon, you’re not ready to ascertain the depth of that idea or the aesthetic choice to use that semi-colon. 

Consider the plight of one of my recent SAT prepees, who had the structure of an essay down pat.  He clearly understood how to take an arguable position or state an assertion; he also had a reasonable handle on grammar and punctuation.  What he did not have, however, was the ability to reason cohesively or creatively to validate his position--crucial components of the higher-end score.

Interestingly, he was an A/B student in English, mostly because he diligently completed his classwork and his homework. However, his templated approach to essays wasn't going to get him into his chosen university or program. 

To help him with his thinking,I dragged him outside of his essay comfort zone to write a position paper in which his thesis was in the conclusion --gasp!--and was not even close to "pronged"--faint!--and yet assertively drove his point home.  His entire paper was, in his mind, backwards

Albeit kicking and screaming, he made significant strides in his reasoning only because this strategy compelled him to think through that reasoning in a different way, resulting in a much stronger overall discussion. 

Was it perfect? No. He had some revising to do, mostly commas, for which we devised several tactics that he might use while in testing mode. But his thinking was where it needed to be to get the desirable score for college entry. (Score one for the "hew-mon".)

We cannot improve the status of student writing if we give in to the premise that we are trying to make students better at writing, concerning ourselves with the superficialities that automated software can handle. 

Rather, let’s make them better writers, first. 

This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.


Arguing Teacher Stereotypes: Teachers Complain

Last week’s post dealt with the primary logical fallacy that folks tend to use when speaking negatively of teachers.  Now, we can move into the core of that fallacy and begin to dispel it:  teachers complain.  What I like about dealing with the discussion posts is the shield of anonymity behind which people speak their minds. They don’t hold back! 

The comments on complaining fall into two categories:  teachers complain too much/repetitively or teachers complain needlessly. Here we are, sic and verbatim
1.   Teachers complain too much/repetitively: 
  • The reason teachers get such little respect is because of how much whining they do.
  • after listening to teachers complain constantly for years, I just lost respect.
  • Typical long-suffering schoolteacher mentality. Tired of hearing it.
  • I love when teachers complain about a raise freeze, furloughs, paying more into retirement. Classic!
Some questions we’ll need to think about before working towards debunking the stereotype are:

Do I excessively or repetitively express dissatisfaction or resentment about my job to students, parents, admins, or other teachers? When I complain, do I do so in a childish fashion (i.e. whining)? 

While we know that these comments represent a logical fallacy (hasty generalization), we cannot debunk them with empirical evidence—it just doesn’t exist. There’s no scatter-plot of numbers of teachers who complain.  

We can, however, conduct a little experiment by determining to what extent we actually do complain (a lot, somewhat, or not at all). 
Complaining to other teachers is probably where most of us fall.  It’s venting, and we need it. But, how detrimental is this shared misery? What can we do to vent productively?

Another part of our experiment could be:  How do I complain? Here’s what one teacher wrote in response to the point about complaints:

I do not get a 15 minute break every 4 hours. After working with kids, I MIGHT get a 20 minute lunch depending on how many parent phone calls and emails I need to return. I go to 6:45 AM meetings and take classes after school because we have been on a pay freeze for 4 years and the only way to get a raise is to take more classes because my Master's degree is not enough. I have parent meetings before and after school that I am not paid to go to. In the summer, I am not paid to take classes or plan innovative lessons for the next school year on top of the second job I need to get. I tutor on the side to make extra money. I am underpaid and overworked. I can't even afford insurance for my family. Besides that, I teach 8th graders, some who are lost and confused. You know why I do all of this? Because I love my job and hope that somewhere in all of this, I am touching a life that might end up running our country someday or saving my life on the operating table. Can you say the same???

I understand what she’s trying to do; she’s trying to present empirical evidence in the form of personal experience (the other person is wrong because look at what I do).  However, this lengthy post (there was a bit more) probably fell completely flat on the person she was trying to convince.  All of her points are valid, and she very carefully lays out her day.  

The end result, though is a very snippy tone in the beginning (notice the lack of contractions), and a martyr syndrome at the end. She does all of this because she loves her job. More than likely, the reader never made it that far.  Her final comment, an attack on the individual, was pure, raw emotion. 

A better way to respond to this argument:   

Move the argument back to the other person to arrive at the basis for his/her thinking.  Acknowledging the opposing side’s point of view will also demonstrate a more powerful, assertive stance:

I’m sorry to hear that you have this view of teachers!  I’d like to understand your point about…a bit better. What do you mean by…?

What will follow, no doubt, is a bit more tirade, but you want the person to calm down. Consider:

I can see that you’re very passionate about this!  Just the other day I was thinking, “Gosh, most of the articles about teachers are so negative!”  lol. I’m wondering if the media tends to highlight the negative, just to keep things stirred up. What do you think?

If you’ve got a reasonable person, he or she will find validation in these points and probably go on to give you a more thoughtful look into why he/she holds this view. Then, you may have a productive meeting of minds and actually resolve something. 

(If you have a troll or other nonesuch person, walk away knowing that you conveyed an articulate professional.)

Empathizing with the person’s experience (especially if it’s personal) will put you, the teacher, levels above the knee-jerk emotional venting response.  Additionally, reminding folks that media tends to revel in controversy and issues is a simple diversion to debunking what’s going on. 

2. Teachers complain needlessly:  

  • They don't work any harder than any one else in any other occupation and definably not as hard as some, including parents. Nurses work horrible shifts, so do many attorneys, fishermen, shrimpers, farmers, day laborers, people that run their own small businesses trying to make ends meet.Don't cry that sad song about how hard teachers work to me because it's poo.
  • Teachers complain about what their jobs require, and are seemingly oblivious to the fact that their job is cushy compared to a LOT of jobs out there. You teach 1st Grade and you're complaining. Oh give me a darn break already.
  • every job has one or more of the same complaints and teachers act that they are the only put upon workers in the country. I've taken work on vacation with me, I've bought my own supplies, I have furthered my education while working full time and I know many other people in non-teaching jobs who have worse working conditions. 
    Questions to consider:  

When should a person or group complain? To whom should  
they complain?

Teachers do have the right to complain, just like anyone else! We have the right to criticize the system.  However, these comparative arguments are tricky.  Our gut response is to say, “Hey, I’m not saying that I work harder than nurses, attorneys, etc., I'm saying...” as this teacher did:

I am not writing this to complain about the hardships of teaching as compared to other professions, I am simply asking that people recognize that teaching is very challenging also, and teachers deserve the respect given to others in challenging lines of work.

This was a pretty nice response because she acknowledged the other side’s views to clarify. However, we’ve got a case of giving apples when the other side wants oranges. The opposing side wants an “answer” to the comparison.  Who do we think we are by complaining? 

A better way to deal with this argument:

Consider when to complain or share your story.  Arguing in a discussion forum, given the disinhibition effect, has probably done more damage than we realize. Both teachers and non-teachers “have at it”, pounding their keyboards mercilessly.  Working in the heat of the moment does not serve the cause of getting anyone to see our point of view.   

What would happen if you simply abstained from comment? 

Much like the hoopla with the Westboro Baptist Church, if the media just stopped paying attention to them, they’d sooner dissolve.  You don’t need to respond to every goofy post.  Rather, move in more productive circles.

Complaining to GrumpyGuy22 is a fruitless endeavor. Instead, find out the best person to complain to or seek assistance from, depending on your issue.  If you want people to recognize that teaching is challenging, consider a better way to do that.  Invite parents into your classroom on just a “regular” day, where challenges will present themselves. (Not a formal presentation day when kids behave differently.) Granted, some won’t be able to make it, but some will. 

Write an article for your local newspaper that highlights something you’ve done in the classroom. Education reporters love the positive stuff! Ask the editor about the possibility of showcasing 5 for 1: Five positive articles for every negative one. There are far too few warm fuzzies, anyway. 

We can get the respect we deserve!  Pick your battles, enemies, and friends carefully.  


Please Don't Feed the Teacher-Bashers

I recently visited Sam Chaltain’s blog article for CNN:  My View: When did teacher bashing become the new national pastime?

He presents a safely-articulated discussion that compares statistics of baseball players to the bashing of teachers whose stats were posted online. What I appreciate about his point is that he poses a meaningful assertion: that a teacher stat cannot be reduced to a single number.
My goal, though, was to review the comments in reaction to his article. Like a tennis match, these commentators went back and forth, with some scoring on both sides.  However, the arguments supporting teachers and their efforts and those opposing teachers and their role in teaching posed nothing new. These are the same points that arise repeatedly on blog after blog, and the reason for the repetition is probably because no one really deals with the numerous logical fallacies.

The primary fallacy that seems to arise whenever education or teachers, specifically, are discussed seems to fall into the category of Hasty Generalizations (from both sides). Here are some examples [sic and verbatim]:

  • I have found [teachers] almost universally to be narcisists who need to be the smartest person in the room. In a room full of children they mistake knowledge for intellect. In their interactions with parents they presume far to much and accept zero input.
  • Yet teachers still go above and beyond for students in general to help them learn. 
  • For the most part teachers are over paid and don't work as many hours as most working Americans ! ENOUGH SAID
  • I work 9-10 hour days, then go home and grade papers for another 2 hours.

In this fallacy, non-teachers will argue that all teachers are a certain way (lazy) or do a certain thing (only work 25 hrs a week). 

Teachers will respond with their own generalizations, usually about parents or students, or about other teachers.  In the examples above, the generalization (either stated or implied) is that everyone feels as this teacher does about teaching or does what this teacher does (works 10 hr days), which is also a logical fallacy.

To get non-teachers off of their hasty-horse, you have to corral them. They are not spouting “truth” in this generalization because it’s a generalization and not true in all instances. Rather than immediately jumping to our own generalizations using personal, anecdotal evidence, we should first make sure the individual understands he/she has made a hasty generalization.

Some questions to pose might be:

So, are you saying that the majority of teachers are overpaid because they don’t work as many hours as most working Americans? Or are you saying that teachers are over-paid, in general? How many hours does a working American actually work on average? How many hours does a teacher work on average?

Hopefully, what will occur is that the individual moves to find evidence to back up his/her claim. Evidence that will mostly likely point in favor of educators. For example, a quick google for “average number of hours worked America” points one in the direction of this article in Real Time Economics: “U.S. Teachers’ Hours Among World’s Longest.”

Thus, with evidence in hand, that argument, myth really, is quickly dispelled. Whatever response the individual has to your questions, be prepared to provide unbiased research and evidence—data, statistics, and studies work best and are most difficult for opponents to argue. Using personal anecdotes about what you do in the classroom doesn’t work, unfortunately. Your opponent will simply say you are an exception to the generalization. It actually feeds into their fallacy to provide personal defense for a larger group.

Likewise, the “narcissist” avenger up there would be hard-pressed to back up his claims that "all teachers feel the need to be the smartest in the room." Probably, he’s working from personal experience, which is interesting, but it only proves that those individuals, based on his subjective experience, are narcissists.

Above all, don’t feel disheartened by these poor folks who spout out their fallacies like a sprinkler in summer-time. They are unable to think critically, and thus, once you’ve politely pointed out that their arguments/claims are in error, move on. They’re not worth your time. 

Don’t fall into the trap that ALL parents or ALL people feel as they do. Otherwise, you’re making that same fallacy, and it will drag you down into despair. You'll feel demoralized, and victimized, and you shouldn't. 

Don't give teacher-bashers the pleasure. Argue more effectively.


(Then) find another job!

Shirley Bunn certainly spoke her mind to her disruptive, admittedly Mexican, student.  After he repeatedly kept making a statement of his ethnicity ("I'm Mexican!  I'm Mexican!"), she said exactly what she was thinking at that moment when he drove her past her breaking point.

"(Then) go back to Mexico."

Her school district, after a brief suspension, ultimately reinstated her last week.

We've all experienced moments when students, particularly middle schoolers, just keep going on and on and on with their nonsense. However, our loss of control, whether relatively small and verbal  (as in Bunn's case) or physical (throwing things, and so on), is the issue.

Teachers experience a peculiar stress, not unlike daily water torture.  It's not so bad at first, but after a while, we're ready to claw some eyes out.

Nonetheless, we have to be above that loss of control.

(Imagine a hotel concierge getting similarly snippy with a customer!  No matter how obnoxious the customer, if the concierge wants to keep his job, he holds his tongue.  He may vent later to friends or co-workers, but to that customer he is a gracious, willing host.)

I appreciate that Shirley Bunn has taught for over twenty years without mishap.  I also appreciate that she was Teacher of the Year two times.  That the school board took her past efforts and contributions into consideration was ethical.  However, if she finds that she is unable to exhibit control over what she says, perhaps it's time to step down.

If the kids are "getting to us", it's okay to leave the profession.  There are other things to do and experience. There's no shame in saying, "You  know what? It's too much, now." 

If we stay in the profession solely for the sake of a retirement benefit or health-care benefits, then we are doing a horrible disservice to students. As Dr. Phil says, " A good divorce is better than a bad marriage."

If we find ourselves no longer happy with the profession, for any reason, we have a bad marriage. It would be better for both students and teachers if we, instead, got a good divorce.

If we're in the relationship only for our retirement benefits, then we're in it for the wrong reasons.