Stoplights & Education: Where Does the Classroom End?

I may have been just out of my teens when this happened, but not by much. The memory of the incident itself is blurry, but the reactions are with me like it was yesterday.

I was first in line at a stoplight in the middle of the small town when the light turned green.  I immediately proceeded to turn left – right in front of the oncoming car opposite me. I’ve cleverly suppressed why/how I pulled such a move – memories are fuzzy, as I say.

But I remember this:  the gentleman driving the other car was alert and stopped quickly as quickly as I did.  And then – wait for it – he smiled and waved at me!  I think he even motioned me on through.  His actions seemed to say, with all good humor, “careful, there, young man! You probably want to live a few more years, and those kinds of stunts won’t help you.”  There was not an ounce of (deserved) condemnation in his cheery, all-forgiving response.

I remember that reaction and the positive effect it had on me – then and now.   I learned a lot in about 3 seconds there at that junction (pun intended). My new friend’s response had become a part of my education. (I wonder what lesson I’d have learned if I pulled that today.)

I’ve recalled this incident recently for some overlapping reasons.  First, I recently re-encountered Mark Twain’s famous quote “Education is what you must acquire without any interference from your schooling.”  I’ve always liked that quote, but I’ve always kinda viewed it as a tiny bit cantankerous, which I suspect it was.  Lately, however, I’ve been viewing it as less cantankerous and much more profound.  Twain had a way of combining the two, didn’t he?

I often wonder, in our attempts at defining what we want education to be and do, if we focus too narrowly.  Isn’t a person’s education, as Twain and others point out, distinctly more than what happens in the classrooms of school buildings?  Well, of course, it is, but . . .

The rub here is that this means the burden of ‘educating our children’ then becomes so much broader.  It means that WE – as individuals, parents, and society in general – share that burden with teachers and schools, and probably more than we’d like to admit.

It means, among lots of other things, that children often learn important things from the actions of society in general (and family in particular) and from individuals around them – much as I did at that stoplight decades ago. This learning becomes part of their education, as well.

There’s so much more to explore here!  But for today, let’s take these thoughts and return to that stoplight.  I’ve often thought about the good humor and civility that man showed – even as I unintentionally tried to mangle both of our cars.

We talk a lot about civility – and the general lack of it – these days.  I’m reminded of our civics discussion in this space last time.  And again, I wonder:  Whether or not we teach a ‘civics’ or government class, or even give an exam to all graduates, what are we teaching our future citizens about civility?  (Note, incidentally, that civics and civility have the same roots.) Or – phrased another way – what are they learning as they watch us?

What are our future citizens learning at their own personal ‘stoplights’ of life?  We probably have dozens of chances a day to influence those lessons – for them, and even for us and those around us.  What will they learn from us?

Osher Courses – Spring 2018

Here is information on not only the classes I will be teaching this Spring, but also on the OSHER campuses at KU (University of Kansas) and MU (Missouri University).

Late February, Early March:

CLASS:  Math is Not a Four-Letter Word (See Description Below)

Location:  Overland Park, KS (KU Edwards Campus)

Dates: Feb 15, 22, and Mar 1 (Thursdays)

Time:  7 – 9 p.m.

Mid March, Early April

CLASSES:  Rollin’ Down the River & Math is Not a Four-Letter Word (See Descriptions Below)

Location:  Columbia, MO (Columbia Campus)

Dates: Mar 14, 21 and April 7 & 14

Time:  One late morning, one early afternoon (order and times TBA)


Rollin’ Down the River Description:     This course grows out of a Summer 2016 seven-week exploration/adventure trip (by car) down the entire Missouri River, from its official source in Three Forks, MT, to its confluence with the Mississippi near St. Louis. The course should be of interest to everyone from armchair travelers to history buffs, with lots scenery, photography, geography, culture, fascinating people, and more.

Join us as we experience all the magic along the 2,341-mile path of arguably the most unique river in the world! (And discover why Atchison, KS, was the most unique stop of the trip!)

Math is Not a Four-Letter Word Description:  Mathematics, like death, gets a bad press! Mathematics is so much more (and more fun) than times tables, and seemingly random and arbitrary ‘rules’.

This course will explore problem-solving and practical mathematics in a light-hearted, hands-on, and FUN manner. The nature of the course should make it fun for both math/number enthusiasts and math-phobics alike. Brain teasers and games will open the door to re-capturing confidence to attack and solve real world problems using tools at our disposal.

Participants will have fun in a ‘safe’ environment, and learn some useful thinking techniques and practical uses of mathematics.


For information on the KU Osher experience, including various locations, and to see a Spring Catalog, visit OSHER.KU
Information on MU’s Osher Spring Semester is not available yet (they are in their Winter Semester now), but to see their website, location, etc, visit OSHER.MU

Three for the Money: Diplomas, Civics, and Hillbillies

Change of pace today!  I’ve been intrigued by two or three recent education-related events here in Missouri, but none of these thoughts are worth of a full column.  Today’s matinee, then, is a collection three mini-columns, disguised as a triple-feature. Apologies offered if needed.  

The Adult High School This news has been hinted at in the past, but it was exciting to see the official announcement materialize.  Four new “Goodwill Excel Centers” will be opened around the state (including Greene County).  They will allow dropouts over 21 to finish high school, earn diplomas, and gain several important skills.  Best of all, it will be free to all participants, as well as providing services like drop-in child care and others.

Implementation and unanticipated glitches are always possibilities in a new venture, and I could be missing something obvious.  But from my perspective, this seems to be a win/win idea, with no real drawbacks.  It also helps reinforce a broader vision of what ‘education’ can be.  I wish the endeavor all the best!!

The Proposed Statewide Civics Exam State Rep. Dean Dohrman has proposed a bill which would mandate that all college students pass a ‘citizenship test’ before they can graduate.  My feelings are so mixed here that I’ll pass on an opinion.  On the one hand, how can one argue with such a noble-sounding goal?  Turning out graduates who are better (and better-informed) citizens is still – and has long been – one of the goals of education.  Furthermore, the exam seems relatively harmless in terms of ramifications, as I suspect it would be hard for students to fail.  (I know, I know.)

On the other hand, we are faced with the basic question here that so often arises in almost all educational settings.  Can one exam, especially one that is necessarily based on facts only, ‘ensure’ (let alone even measure) that graduates ‘understand American civics’?  (Does passing the bar ensure that the candidate will be a good lawyer?) We’ve been recently and repeatedly introduced to the fact that ‘American civics’ is a complicated process. 

Please don’t get me wrong:  knowing (or knowing at test time?) how many senators, how many articles in the Constitution, and naming branches of government is certainly not bad!  (Would that more of us could remember those facts!)  But that information can always be googled, and will/does this ‘knowledge’ make better citizens? 

Perhaps that answer is yes.  Seriously.  I’m NOT trying to be a naysayer; I’m just wondering out loud.

Hillbilly Elegy If you haven’t read J.D. Vance’s book of the same title, I highly recommend it.  I was slow to do so, and I now see why it’s a best-seller.  It’s a fascinating, enlightening, well-written story, one that is simultaneously ‘an easy read’ and ‘thought-provokingly deep’ at the same time.  Near the end (and elsewhere in spots), Vance develops and shares some very good observations on politics, sociology, and certainly education (including how it’s affected by home environment!), which is why it’s mentioned here.  I’m still pondering some of those observations, and even how I feel about one or two of them, but that’s not the point.  These topics desperately need to be discussed on a variety of levels, including nationally.  A whole paradigm shift may be needed in places.  Excellent grist for the mill here – and a good read as well.

“Mistaken Identity” Response

The case of mistaken identity with math isn’t between arithmetic and mathematics, it’s between math educators and professionals who actually use mathematics in the world outside of the K-12 classroom.

In a previously published Local Voice, Dr. Campbell asks, “Do we really want to spend time anymore on learning times-tables and other purely arithmetic procedures? When was the last time those were used in the workplace, especially where time is money?”

Apparently, Dr. Campbell hasn’t observed the inability of young cashiers who can’t calculate change in real time when the computerized cash register becomes useless during a power outage. Or perhaps he’s never waited for a job candidate who showed up because the candidate’s phone calculator couldn’t identify the correct time for setting the alarm.

But inconvenience in the workplace isn’t the worst of what 21st-century thinking has brought America’s developing children. Serious problems include:

Lost opportunity for optimal brain development and logical problem solving. Humans are not born with the ability to solve problems. Brain imaging research on young children indicates that learning arithmetic changes the human brain in a way has a positive effect on solving problems by looking for logical solutions. The human brain needs to be conditioned by the raw sensation of basic computation so that later, children can derive understanding and solve more complex problems.

Poor foundation for higher order mathematics. A lack of fluency in basic math fact recall significantly hinders a child’s subsequent progress with algebra and higher-order math concepts. It’s very difficult to get to graduate-level mathematics if you can’t hack calculus because you couldn’t hack algebra because you couldn’t hack middle-school math because you couldn’t hack arithmetic.

Increased math anxiety and confusion. Just as letters are components of words and words are components of sentences, arithmetic facts are the foundation blocks for learning the next level of math. Math anxiety starts when children fall behind in learning the basic building blocks of arithmetic and can’t keep up.

Skills such as adding and subtracting larger numbers, telling time, counting money, measurement, long multiplication and division are just a few of the concepts that a child will encounter fairly early in her math career. If she has mastered her arithmetic, these concepts will be significantly easier and she will be better equipped to solve them more quickly. If she is spending a lot of time doing the basic facts, she is more likely to be confused with the process and get lost in her calculations.

Educators’ emphasis on 21st-century learning combined with common core aligned high school math and science curricula are a scandal and leave our children unprepared for independent thinking and our state without the technical expertise it needs at the post-high school and college level. We need engineers, scientists and mathematicians to design and evaluate our state’s arithmetic to mathematics course sequence; not math educators extolling the virtues of calculators at the expense of our children’s neurologic, academic and emotional development.


The Brown Shoe Awards

“Did you ever feel like the world was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

Folks my age may remember comedian George Gobel.  Once, as a guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Gobel off-handedly slipped this line into the conversation, cracking Carson up in a way that was unusual.

I remembered this image recently, while thinking about the current Missouri State School Board controversies in Jefferson City. I decided it would be fun to start “The Brown Shoes Educational Award”, to be presented to those whose actions seem to clash with accepted sensibilities, at least in education.

I stress that this B.S. Award is presented primarily for actions, and not necessarily personalities.  Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I note that the Awards Committee consists of one person only, and his views are certainly subjective.

Perhaps you’ve deduced the Winner of this First Round of awards: Missouri Governor Eric Greitens.  The voting wasn’t even close.  His willingness to blatantly, maliciously, and perhaps illegally sabotage existing state policies and procedures to further his own unspecified educational aims is not only shameful, but borderline arrogant.  His actions could win both the Educational and Political B.S. Awards – hopefully the legislature will present him the latter.

Particularly galling is the governor’s unwillingness to share or promote his views on education for discussion. We have heard he thinks teachers are underpaid, with which most of us can whole-heartedly agree!!  We have heard that he thinks administrators are overpaid, which is much more debatable – that is, if the governor allowed debate.  His apparent willingness to believe that his views alone are worth the travesties he has perpetrated are more than enough to color his shoes brown.

The Runner-Up Award, which comes with truckloads of disclaimers, is shared by the five (of the ten appointed) commissioners who were willing to bow to the governor’s wishes, without further examining the issues and apparently without caring about the questionable means being used to attain the ends.

PLEASE:  Most pertinent of the disclaimers is this one:  I have no problem whatsoever with our own Jennifer Edwards’ reasons for accepting her appointment. (See “Why I Accepted . . .”, News-Leader, Dec 3, page I1.) I agree that dyslexia is real and can hinder learning.  Apparently, Ms. Edwards agonizingly decided that her chance to advocate for this issue was worth the extremely high price she paid to do so. And while I may disagree (and worry that she may have hurt her cause), I will respect that particular part of her decision.

Nonetheless, it is still the case that all five new members (none of whom are yet confirmed), deliberately chose to sacrifice open discussions, existing structures, possible legality issues, and certainly common sense, to advance the governor’s cause, while condoning his methods.  For that, their shoes are distinctly brown.

When it comes to tuxedos, black shoes are rarely noticed.  But, in this case, there are also Black Shoe Awards, and there are Dual Winners.  Sharing one award are the other five Greitens appointees to the Board, who refused to automatically vote with the governor’s wishes without further examination of the issues and circumstances.  (As a result, their brief tenure on the Board is over.)  The other Award goes to Sen Gary Romine (R), who has acknowledged that “this is just not proper procedure”, and will work to reestablish the Senate’s state-mandated role in these appointments through the Senate confirmation process.

If the shoe fits . . .

Synopsis: Spitballs From the Back Row

One of the hardest parts about discussing educational issues regularly is that while everyone is for a ‘good education’, almost no one can define what that should be, (go ahead – try it!), let alone how to manifest it.  We’re all using the same words with different images – and concepts – in our heads.

Public education is a hugely complex process.   This is true, no matter how we define and shape it, and issues that face educators today are almost never easy, or even well-defined!  Indeed, they may never have been.

Worse yet, there are no easy answers, no silver bullets.  And yet these issues must be acknowledged, pondered, and explored from every angle before they can ever be solved. 

The idea for these essays, then, is to bring some of these issues to the surface, raise subtle and different perspectives, minimize misperceptions, and provide balance, always in a light, readable, and even humorous style.  The selections are not designed to convince. They are designed to get attention, promote thought, and even generate discussion.

In the end, the essays may also function as minor ‘nuisances’ of sorts.  Not in the traditional negative sense, but rather in the ‘forced-to-take-notice-and-think-about-it’ sense.  Like buzzing gnats.  Or, indeed, like Spitballs from The Back Row.