31 May 2008

Must Read

When I need to, I go back to Peter Høeg’s novel Borderliners. When I first discovered this book a decade ago I knew I had found something essential, but like many other first-time readers, including my son who read it in a high school class, I was somewhat thrown by the complexity of the construction of Høeg’s of story and his language. Now, I've listened to it perhaps a dozen times. I own it both in print and on cassette - yes - cassette, and need to run the proper conversions.

And now I think that no one should teach children, and no one should run a school, without reading this book.

That doesn't suggest that I think your first reading will be easy. Høeg is a brilliant and brilliantly complex writer. Reading (or hearing) his work takes time and patience. Borderliners is much easier than one of my absolute favourites, A History of Danish Dreams, but it is far more difficult than his most popular book in English, Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Nonetheless, I think you must read it.

I need to return to Borderliners periodically to remind me of how school operates. Of how even the best intentioned schools often operate - if those schools believe in what Høeg summarizes as the concepts of linear time and human progress. It is important to be reminded of the damage done to children by the unquestioned assumptions which lie behind "school-as-we-know-it." For we cannot really begin to change the system of education until we understand the philosophies behind the decisions that make education as it is.

Borderliners is the story of inclusion in Danish schools in the 1960s, and is far more than that. It is a deep exploration of the idea of, of the intent of, education in "western democracies." Borderliners is the rare book which understands the purpose of school and what drives educators. As I listened to it this past week I realised that this is the writing which explains why people like Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton support laws like No Child Left Behind, and why Britain's "New Labour" too often falls into those same traps.

But at its heart Borderliners is the story of children. Of children and western culture. Of children and the idea of progress. And if you read this book, you will never see your students in the same way again.

On my last post Brian Wojcik asked about how far inclusion might go. He specifically asked about "students with moderate to severe behavior and emotional disabilities." And I responded that inclusion could only go as far as the structure of the school could be altered to accept. If the entire structure of the school is not altered it is not "inclusion" - it is "integration." And when most schools talk about "inclusion" they are really speaking of "integration." Differing students are accepted into a school as long as they can conform to the way the school has always been. Back in the 1960s and 1970s in America black kids were allowed in to white schools, but the expectation was (and is) that the white schools held all the correct behaviors, rules, and learning styles. Today, "special needs" students are allowed into "regular" classrooms, with those same "normalising" expectations - now literally encoded into law by the US government.

Borderliners will let you see why that does not work.

A few quotes:

On Assessment:

"When you assess something, you are forced to assume that a linear scale of values can be applied to it. Otherwise no assessment is possible. Every person who says of something that it is good or bad or a bit better than yesterday is declaring that a points system exists; that you can, in a reasonably clear and obvious fashion, set some sort of a number against an achievement.

"But never at any time has a code of practice been laid down for the awarding of points. No offense intended to anyone. Never at any time in the history of the world has anyone-for anything ever so slightly more complicated than the straightforward play of a ball or a 400-meter race-been able to come up with a code of practice that could be learned and followed by several different people, in such a way that they would all arrive at the same mark. Never at any time have they been able to agree on a method for determining when one drawing, one meal, one sentence, one insult, the picking of one lock, one blow, one patriotic song, one Danish essay, one playground, one frog, or one interview is good or bad or better or worse than another."

On Cultural Bias in Intelligence Testing:

"A letter came from her. It was not in her own words, it was a quote straight out of Binet-Simon. She must have learned it by heart, just by reading it. "There was once a grasshopper, who had sung merrily all summer long. Now it was winter and he was starving. So he went to see some ants who lived nearby and asked them to lend him some of the stores they had laid up for the winter. `What have you been doing all summer?' they asked. `I have sung day and night,' replied the grasshopper. 'Ah, so you have sung,' said the ants. `Well, now you can dance.'

"Beneath this she had written: "What is the moral?"

"It was so deep. It showed how she had figured out that this was a problem from the "fourteen years" level and that I must have had it. She had, therefore, used what I had written to her and discovered the system behind Binet-Simon.

"At the time when I had been given this story, I had come close to answering that the moral was ants were not helpful. But this would not have fitted in very well with the other problems. Instead I had sensed Hessen, and then I had said the moral was that one must seize the moment."

On Progress in School:

"Of course, it was only from the outside that the days seemed the same. Deep down they were meant to be different. It only seemed as though the same subjects and the same classrooms and the same teachers and the same pupils came around again and again. In re­ality, the requirement was that you should, with every day, be trans­formed. Every day you should be better, you should have developed, all the repetition in the life of the school was there only so that, against an unchanging background, you could show that you had improved."

On the Classroom:

"At Biehl's you had to sit down for five to six hours every day ­not including the study period-five days a week plus Sunday for the boarders, more than forty weeks a year, for ten years. While constantly having to strive to be precise and accurate, in order to improve.

"I believe that this went against the nature of children."

On "No Child Left Behind":

"Of course, there were schools elsewhere, too, this I know. But surely no place with a vision such as Biehl's.

"Elsewhere, in other countries, they have held children in the grip of time, for a while they have held them. But, in time, those children who could not cope, or whose parents did not have the where­withal, were given up, dropped.

"But Biehl would not give up on anyone, that was the exceptional thing-maybe the exceptional thing about Denmark. They would not entertain the thought that some pupils were down there, in darkness. They did not want to know anything about the darkness, everything in the universe had to be light. With the knife of light they would scrape the darkness clean.

"It is as though that thought was almost insane."

On the Cosmology necessary for "No Child Left Behind":

"Fredhoj and Biehl never said it straight out, but I know now, with certainty, what they were thinking. Or maybe not thinking, but sensing. What the cosmology was, upon which all of their actions rested. They were thinking that in the beginning God created heaven and earth as raw material, like a group of pupils entering Primary One, designated and earmarked for processing and ennoblement. As the straight path along which the process of evolution should progress, he created linear time. And as an instrument for measuring how far the process of evolution had advanced, he created mathematics and physics.

"I have had the following thought: What if God were not a math­ematician? What if he had been working, like Katarina and August and me, without actually having defined either questions or answers? And what if his result had not been exact but approximate? An approximate balance perhaps. Not something that had to be improved upon, a springboard to further achievement, but some­thing that was already more or less complete and in equilibrium."

Anyway, I'd love you to read The Drool Room this summer. But if I could get teachers to read one thing, it would be Borderliners. There are no easy answers in this book. The children you will meet in these pages would, perhaps, make any teacher insane. And yet, they are all kinds of students we might most cherish, if we knew how to break down walls instead of how to build them.

And when you've read it, send me an email, and I'll let you know how the Danish title of the book actually translates into English. It's important.

- Ira Socol

Three blogs that relate: At Coffee-on-the-Keyboard we are asked, "What kind of classroom do you run?" Whether that classroom is a classroom, or even a blog. At Grad Student Madness we are asked to consider the value of liberal arts education, and that western canon. At History and Education - the same question is asked but with a slightly different focus - why do we have liberal education?

The Drool Room by Ira David Socol, a novel in stories that has - as at least one focus - life within "Special Education in America" - is now available from the River Foyle Press through lulu.com

US $16.00 on Amazon

New! Digital version available through lulu.com

Look Inside This Book


su said...

Wow, two posts.....it feels like Christmas =:)

Quick question, have you ever explored Google desktop? Not only is it very cool (I have these cute koi fish swimming around), but also you can customize it with whatever gadgets you want. I have the BBC&NPR players, my gmail account, spellchecker, a scratchpad, RSS feeds, text to speech, del.ic.ious (for tagging), and even a Remember the Milk display (which I added thanks to you).


vera said...

i'm going to my county library and getting borderliners and the drool room. if nobody has the drool room, even through interlibrary loan, i'll ask that they buy it- the excerpts from it justify that.

vera said...

from borderliners: Never at any time have they been able to agree on a method for determining when one drawing, one meal, one sentence, one insult, the picking of one lock, one blow, one patriotic song, one Danish essay, one playground, one frog, or one interview is good or bad or better or worse than another."

vera says: how can you determine that the students who are trained as teachers for teach for america are worse than the teachers in the system now? you criticize teach for america, right? can i criticize what you say? how do i do that? when i read what hoeg wrote above, it sounds like he is saying nobody can compare anything with anything. i must be wrong, because that thesis is absurd. btw, have you ever seen the types of questions that are asked on some of the state tests NCLB accepts? in nj creativity is rewarded, persuasive writing built on good examples and logic is rewarded- oops! just the things one could extract from hoeg's book!

narrator said...


Hoeg isn't writing a thesis, he's telling a story that asks questions. He is not prescribing, he is doubting. But I don't think he is refusing to allow comparison, rather he is making clear the arbitrary and subjective nature of comparison. I'll guess that he is suggesting that we measure children against a set of absolutely arbitrary judgments which we cannot even explain to them - perhaps characterized most dramatically by the thought (in one of the above quotes) that you will be considered "less intelligent" if you disagree with the fables of the Protestant "work ethic." (Having just, once again, been exposed to "IQ" testing, I can assure you that the tests remain every bit as culturally biased today as they've ever been.)

His use of the term "code of practice" is interesting, because that is always the question. For example, Teach for America assumes a different code of practice for poor kids than rich kids (if it did not, TFA recruits would be teaching the kids of the TFA Board and NYTimes' editors in Scarsdale and Greenwich, and the teachers from those schools would be sent to The Bronx and Gary, Indiana). There is nothing wrong with those differing codes of practice, of course. The problem is who gets to write those codes, who gets to do the eventual comparing, who is allowed to function according to their own rules, and who is not?

Consider NJ's assessment of creativity. It is surely - we'd have to think - better than what most states do, but why would we have these tests at all? Why wouldn't all student "demonstration of progress" be via student-determined portfolio? I remember a professor at Pratt Institute (Brooklyn) explaining the School of Architecture's policy of not having grades: "How do you get an "A" or a "B" in a design studio?" he asked, "You either are investigating your ideas of design or you are not. And as for structures courses, no one leaves my class knowing 90% of what it takes to make a building stand up."

In other words, as in that 400 meter race - when there is a clear code of conduct we can say "yes" or "no." When there is not - and in most things there is not - then we need to encourage, to suggest, to support, but also to allow, to permit, to tolerate.

But none of that suggests that we can not disagree, or challenge, or doubt - or - that we should not be desperately encouraging our students to do the same.


Google desktop is one more great way to build personalization into personal computing. Thanks for bringing that up. We need a good post about that.

- Ira Socol

vera said...

ira said: Why wouldn't all student "demonstration of progress" be via student-determined portfolio? I

Vera says: no matter whether you use a student-determined portfolio or a state test, you, ira, still subscribe to the idea of "demonstration of student progress". Who is to judge if the student has made progress with the portfolio method? What standards will you as judge of the portfolio apply? I think excellent rubrics exist for judging the creative/persuasive writing on the njask. maybe you would also like to adopt the same rubrics but have them used to judge multiple examples of a student's work as contained in their portfolio?

narrator said...


I do subscribe to the idea that students (if students they are to be) are "moving." I don't dispute the right of people to remain static, though I do think that would be an unfortunate state for a child. But I think that "student" - the word, the "position," suggests movement toward something.

The question is, of course, toward what? And who decides the what? And who decides the route? The "what" and the "route" are the "code of practice." And that may something "solidly" real - Hoeg's 400m race or my professors "how a building stands up." Or it may be absolutely arbitrary - how to write citations, how to bind a thesis, where to sit in a classroom, which way to "read" a book. Or, perhaps, it might lie in some fuzzy (culturally dependent) "in between" - how to write a sentence, how to solve a math problem, how to describe a historical event.

So the question is not what is in the matrix - the question is who gets to make the matrix? Can the student be the arbiter of their own progress? Can the student set their own goals? Can the student decide which way to move right now?

I think those are the questions. Then, what is being measured is the student moving against his or her own scale of achievement. And I'd argue that this is a different process than someone else measuring a student against a scale that is assembled through averaging the achievements of others.

- Ira Socol

vera said...

so you are going way beyond what is involved in UDL and Lisa/Christines's classroom. you are giving the student total decision-making power. i think there are quite a few 5 year olds who would want to delve into the mysteries of seeing how much chocolate their stomachs could hold, and forget the reading and writing. when you were raising your own child/children, did you have any guidelines/expected standards of behavior for them? did you homeschool them? as for who decides how the student is to be judged, while the student is a minor, that power should be in the hands of the parent. but as the power of the state and the teacher's union stands now, only parents who decide to homeschool or have the money for private school really have that power. what power parents of public schoolers have is usually abdicated to the school as most parents don't want to 'make waves' and kids don't want their parents to make them stand out as different (starting at puberty). the exception to that rule is wealthier parents who have the self-confidence to go up against school administrators.

narrator said...


I tend to think that most five year olds should be playing and exploring and not being assessed. This doesn't mean that you don't create safe environments, stimulating environments, exploratory environments, but almost every child I've seen at that age is a natural learner - a process more often destroyed by the school (and/or school and over-active parent) process than enhanced.

It is always interesting. Every year we take millions of five-year-olds who are desperate to go to school and desperate to learn, and - with just three or four years of education - we turn them into kids who hate school and need to be paid for grades.

Maybe they're better at controlling their learning than the adults are.

- Ira Socol

vera said...

maybe.? but i have to say for the vast majority of parents the problem is not being over-active re school, it's not being active at all. you have 'savage inequalities' on your recommended reading list. i taught in one of those districts kozol mentions: camden, nj. the problem there was parents not getting involved- in their kid's school or in their government. that's a recipe for corruption/abuse.

and not all kids hate school. i grew up working on a farm. i used to call the september opening of school 'school vacation'. the majority of my teachers were great and some even changed my life.

i happen to think nclb with all its flaws put fire to the feet in those 'do whatever you want' districts like camden. why, camden got so scared of sanctions,some principals started instructing teachers to put up hints on the board during the tests. the principal i worked under was recently indicted for squirreling away field trip money parents gave him for trips that were paid for by the state. when you have that kind of garbage in leadership positions, you need something to get them to teach children, especially if the parents are too timid, don't understand the system, can't speak english, too tired, etc to get the garbage out.

so parents(outside of a few nutcases who violate universal moral principles by not wanting to educate girls or those who want corporal punishment in the schools) should decide what and how their children learn. caring parents would want what's best, and that's where we who think we know best have to persuade them on what educational principles to support. your blog is part of the persuasive fight.

but i can't believe you advocate letting the child be in the driver's seat totally. you want to entice the child onto your path (the path of questioning/critical thinking/compassion etc) by creating an irresistible learning environment for the child- an environment that works with the child's nature, not against it, as was illustrated by the school in borderliners. you still have a code you want the child to learn/ you know what you want students to move towards- you're just not ramming it down their throats.

a question- at what point (what age and what reading level) do you think a teacher should give up trying to teach a struggling student to break the alphabetic code and instead have the student rely on technology to read to them for the rest of their lives?

narrator said...


Your questions probably require two whole new posts to answer, and I will probably do that over the next week or two, but short answers...

As I've said here before - and it is perhaps my most "radical" thought - I believe that the "customer" in education is always the student: not the parent, not the community, not the society, not the economic system. That does not suggest abdicating the adult role, or abdicating the mentor role, but it means that the goals need to be the student's goals and the path must be the student's paths. Those goals and paths must be suggested, advised, recommended - as well as marked (to some extent), cleared (to some extent), made safe (to some extent). The paths need guides, and maps. The range of goals must be available to see, as well as the complexities (or just possibilities) of reaching that success. Still, I don't want parent goals for students. I don't want societal goals. I want student goals. Those are the goals students will strive to reach.

Because, yes, I've seen good parents, but I've also seen awful parents - in every economic class. And I've seen clueless parents - in every economic class. And I've seen the terrible decisions other responsible adults make for children. And I think that, when child-centered education is actually given a chance, it typically proves stunningly successful.

As for reading, I think the question (and I'm asked it often) "give up trying to teach a struggling student to break the alphabetic code and instead have the student rely on technology to read to them for the rest of their lives" presents a false dichotomy. After all, some of the very best readers I know listen to books all day long on their iPods. It is very rarely an either/or choice. So I think you use technology from the start to increase "read to" time and access to content if the student responds to that. Evidence suggests that just using text-to-speech technology that way improves traditional reading in at least half of struggling readers - by increasing sight-word recognition and (with the best software) emphasizing sentence structure.

With real "non reader" students in third grade and beyond I suggest using about half of "reading instruction" time working on decoding (the reading equivalent of physical therapy for a non-walker who you hope might walk), but the other half must be devoted to building comprehension skills in text-to-speech environments. Students who are not exposed to reading comprehension strategies in middle primary grades because of reading decoding issues are - in my observations - the students most likely to drop out of school, because school proves irrelevant.

By 13, 14, 15, ink-on-paper should only be a choice. Remember, the technology is still showing them the alphabetic code. It is all there. They will learn it if they are going to learn it. I have never seen a dyslexic student who did not wish reading "ink-on-paper" wasn't easier ("Can you help me read my girlfriend's notes?" and other questions). So, once beyond primary, make the support available, but don't insist. What matters is that they learn that what's in books is valuable, and that they can learn to work with that information.

- Ira Socol

vera said...

i don't find anything major to disagree with in your post. it's going to be an exciting future for education. a lot of locked up potential is going to be set free if these technologies come into wide use- i think it is inevitable that they will, if not promoted by the school, then by word of mouth among people who need/simply enjoy assistive technology.