Asking Questions

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Question: You moderate a lot of panel discussions at education meetings, and you have a reputation for doing a pretty good job at it. In fact, some of those appearances are embedded above in this post. Can you pass along some tips to the rest of us?

John: Sure, but why are you asking me now?

Question: Well, you’re not getting any younger, are you?

John: Fair enough. There’s really just one unbreakable commandment for running a worthwhile panel discussion: No opening remarks!

Question: Why not?

John: Because if I ask panelist so-and-so to make a few remarks, I have given up control of the microphone. That means when he or she goes off on a tangent or goes on too long, I cannot interrupt without being rude. But if it’s all Q&A, it’s always my microphone, and I can interrupt without being rude. Remember, it’s supposed to be a ‘discussion,’ not a series of presentations or ‘opening remarks.’ How many of these events have you been to where they never even get to a discussion because each panelist takes 10 or 15 minutes — even though the moderator had told them ‘5 minutes max!’

Tell me more...

Question: What are your other ‘rules’?

John: There are two expressions I try to use as often as possible. One is “I don’t understand,” and the other is “Tell me more.”

Question: Tell me more.

John: That’s cute.

Question: Well, I’m just trying to follow your example.

John: OK. Here’s why. When I hear jargon, even if I understand it, I will say “I don’t understand’ because that forces the panelist to come down to earth and speak in understandable English. He may be thinking that I am pretty stupid, but he will invariably provide a better, clearer explanation. “Tell me more” works on that same principle.

Question: So those are the secrets?

John: Well, there’s more. The moderator has to listen to what people are saying and respond to that. Some moderators seem to feel that it’s their job to ‘balance’ the conversation, giving equal time to everyone. I don’t worry about that. In fact, I often tell panelists that they have to speak up if they want to be heard. Life is unfair, and so are panel discussions.

Question: What else?

John: I always ask panelists ahead of time if there’s a question they want to be asked. If there is, I ask it, because that allows them to say what they would have said if there had been opening remarks. Everyone has a set speech, a shtick, and I want to make it easy for them to get it out there for the audience.

Question: How do you see the moderator’s role?

John: Good question. Kind of like a conductor.

Question: Orchestra or train?

John: Both, I guess. If the panel has been chosen well, then there will be different voices (instruments), and a good conductor will help them create something worth listening to. But a moderator is also driving a train toward a clear destination, greater understanding of the issue. Remember, the operative word is ‘discussion,’ but if you look at most convention programs, these events are usually billed as ‘panels,’ whatever that means. It’s all about having a decent conversation, one that sheds light and holds the audience’s interest.

Question: You feel pretty strongly about this.

John: Sure, because pedagogy matters. We shouldn’t be lecturing when we know that the more interactive and participatory an event is, the more likely it will be interesting to the audience.

Question: Is there an ideal number of panelists?

John: No, but two is too few. I would say that three or four is probably best. I’ve juggled as many as seven, but that’s no fun for anyone.

Question: What about taking questions from the audience?

John: Essential, but here the moderator has to be tough and occasionally rude. A lot of so-called questioners really want to hold forth with their opinions. I always make it clear that I won’t tolerate that, but even so someone always gets up and tries to make a speech. I am always forced to interrupt someone and ask (or demand) ‘What’s your question?’

Question: Your blog is usually about education. In fact, you usually complain about something or other. What’s up with this?

John: I am taking a bold stand against boredom, against lousy pedagogy and stultifying panels. Pretty courageous, huh?

Question: Chances are most people won’t read this far. You OK with that?

John: Well, if even one moderator behaves differently because of this, I will feel I have actually accomplished something.

Question: I suppose you think you’re pretty clever, putting all this information about moderating into Q&A form.

John: You said that, I didn’t.

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Public Good — Or Commodity?

If you are reading this during daylight hours in March, chances are that millions of our children are now engaged in what’s called ‘test prep.’ Just yesterday someone showed me the March calendar for a high-achieving public elementary school: two solid weeks of the month were blocked off for “TEST PREP,” probably in caps lest any classroom teacher forget and do some real teaching.

The banality of “TEST PREP” clashes violently with the ideas I was exposed to last week. Last Thursday and Friday, I spent quality time with syndicated columnist Mark Shields, GE Chairman and CEO Jeffery Immelt, Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO), libertarian activist Giséle Huff, Stanford’s Claude Steele, Assistant Secretary of Education Carmel Martin, and Roberto Rodriguez (President Obama’s education advisor.)

These seven separate meetings (in Washington, DC and northern California) had only one thing in common: big ideas about life and learning. While their politics are different, all celebrated the human spirit. Oh, and no one talked about TEST PREP or about what is happening in real classrooms in many schools.

Both Roberto Rodriguez and Carmel Martin expressed the faith that pushing certain policy levers from Washington will produce the desired changes in 15,000 school districts and 100,000 public schools. So, for example, “doubling down” on early childhood education, as the Administration they work for has done, will dramatically increase enrollment in early childhood programs, and that in turn will lead to early reading competence. Investing $4 billion in ‘turning around’ low-performing schools will produce dramatic gains. Creating “Career and College Readiness” programs will make more kids ready for college and careers. And so forth. If either harbors doubts about the wisdom or efficacy of any of their policy initiatives, they did not let on. If either wonders whether federal policies under Presidents Bush and Obama might be responsible for the ubiquity of TEST PREP, we saw no sign.

Test Prep
Is this what test prep is doing to our students and our schools?

Senator Bennet, whose previous job was Superintendent of Schools in Denver, spoke of finding new ways to train and ‘incentivize’ teachers. “What we do now makes no sense,” he said, indicating that he wanted to use federal dollars to ‘incentivize’ school districts to use technology. He told us that he was worried about all children, not just kids in poor areas, being forced to attend schools that were failing to recognize the power of technology to radically change education.

Like Senator Bennet, Giséle Huff believes that today’s technologies can transform education.

A libertarian activist who once ran for Congress, Huff now runs a small foundation. Perhaps because her office looks out on San Francisco Bay, she used a maritime metaphor to describe public education today. “Teach for America, KIPP and other programs are building rafts for a small number of kids, and that’s fine as far as it goes,” she said. “But I am worried about the ship’s direction. We cannot abandon ship, but neither can we continue doing what we are doing; we have to change course.”

GE’s Jeff Immelt was bullish on America. He gave 10 reasons for optimism, with No. 5 being, “We do education better than anyone in the world.” As evidence, he cited the number of foreign students who come here for their graduate training. However, I’d be willing to bet a new GE dishwasher that he has no clue about what’s happening in K-12 classrooms this March.

Which brings me the question posed by Claude Steele of Stanford: Is education a commodity or a public good? If it’s a commodity, who’s buying, and what’s being sold? If it’s a public good, just what are the benefits?

Steele, the new Dean of the School of Education at Stanford, suggested a double standard is at work. “For our own children, education is a commodity, a scarce resource that we are willing to pay for,” he said. “People with resources will never give up privilege willingly,” he said, which is why, he said, “When we talk about education for others, we say it’s an ‘opportunity.’”

However, if education is a commodity to be purchased, then I say ‘buyer beware.’ When even our good schools devote weeks to TEST PREP and the subsequent multiple-choice tests, that’s an education system that is training kids as if life were a bubble test.

But life is not a series of multiple-choice questions, requiring only a No. 2 pencil. Navigating the future will require improvising, regrouping, falling down and getting up, growing and changing.

We know that the predictors of success in later life include diverse experiences in what Dean Steele calls “non-routine settings,” but what could be more routine than weeks of TEST PREP? We also know that lots of reading and the experience of ‘negotiating’ with adults and other children also are preparation for, and predictors of, success. TEST PREP doesn’t make the list.

So what on earth are we doing? “Americans are pragmatists,” Mark Shields said. “While ideologues believe that what is right works, the rest of us believe that what works is right.”

If Shields is correct — and he usually is — then most Americans must not know what their children and their neighbors’ children are doing in class. If adults knew about the mind-numbing waste of time, I believe they’d do something about it.

Immelt concluded by noting that “the highway to the future is a toll road,” meaning that we Americans have to be prepared to work creatively and aggressively if we wish to ensure our future. Hard, creative work seems like a reasonable toll to pay.

The toll barriers we’ve set up in schools, however, are entirely different. We’re training kids to think inside the box and penalizing them (and their teachers!) when they don’t.

TEST PREP education probably doesn’t descend to the level of a “public evil,” but it’s certainly not a “public good.” And if it’s a “commodity,” it’s bargain basement, yard-sale stuff.