Monday, January 25, 2010


A week or two ago we had visiting speakers on campus from High Tech High in San Diego. One of them, Ben Daley, had strong praise for a book entitled An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students, so I decided to check it out. It's one of the best books on education I've come across. Berger is a public school teacher (and, I think not coincidentally, a part-time carpenter) who has an extensive practical knowledge of exactly how powerful project based, student-oriented learning can be. His book is an artful balance of clear, specific examples of classroom practice and passionate, informed advocacy for the creation of a classroom environment which places students learning at the center by giving students the chance to do real work for real purposes. But, he argues,

Thinking that projects or critique or portfolios are a magic solution to anything is as silly as thinking high-stakes testing will turn things around. Only as a part of a strong classroom culture or school cultkure are these tools valuable. Culture matters... Students adjust their attitudes and efforts in order to fit the culture. If the peer culture ridicules academic achievement—it isn't cool to raise your hand in class, to do homework, to care openly about school—this is a powerful force. If the peer culture celebrates investment in school—it's cool to care, this is just as powerful. Schools need to consciously shape their cultures to be places where it's safe to care, where it's cool to care. They need to reach out to family and neighborhood cultures to support this." (34)

That's easily said of course, and only common sense. The real strength and beauty of Berger's book lies in how he demonstrates, with example after example, what this might look like and how one might go about achieving it. Berger has not only worked with his own kids in his own classes, but he has also spent a lot of time visiting teachers in other schools, many of them initially skeptical or downright hostile,  to share with them the work his students have done and to help those teachers start down their own path to innovation. As his title suggests, his main point has to do with the quality of the work:

We can't first build the students self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow. I don't believe self-esteem is built from compliments. Students who are struggling or producing lousy work know exactly how poor their performance is—compliments never seem genuine. All the self-esteem activiites and praise in the world won't make them feel like proud students until they do something they can value.

Berger gives lots of examples of projects and theme-based investigations. He talks about the use of models, about the value of multiple drafts (and how to establish that value with students), about the dynamics of critique, and about the importance of making student work truly public. As I write this, I am fully aware that this perhaps does not sound like revolutionary or very interesting stuff. But in his book, it is, and what makes it so is the forcefulness of his examples and the clarity of his presentational style. At one point he talks about what he went through, over a period of years, drafting and re-drafting plans for the house he was to build for his family. The house he eventually built was, as he says, not the grander, more decorative house he originally envisioned. "I kept the original features, took my wife's advice on changes, and shrunk the house down. It was now just a two bedroom, one bathroom house. But a very cool one." That's what this 150-page project feels like to me. Berger has kept it simple and kept it clear, and it is, ultimately, just another book on education. But a very cool one. I'd read it if I were you.

Postscript: I found myself thinking about Berger's argument about the importance of culture when I was reading another book this weekend, a book called King's Gambit, Paul Hoffman's very well-written and entertaining book about chess. While framed as a personal narrative of sorts, it has whole digressive chapters about the psychology of chess, and tournament play, and about chess in pop culture and literature and in history. Discussing the near-total domination of the Russians at the highest levels of chess, he writes:

The Soviets dominated international chess not because they snatched children from their homes and drilled them in the Leningard Dutch Defense and the Volga Gambit, but simply because they had, as the world champion Anatoly Karpov once put it, "such a lot of people playing chess." The game also had a social status that made it far more than a pastime: cultured Muscovites might spend a Sunday afternoon at a chess match instead of the Bolshoi. If a society exposes everyone and values the game, more people are going to catch the fever and pursue it until they're world-class. (94)
(Later, he points out that "at its peak, in the early 1980s, the Soviet Chess Federation had four million members; the United States never boasted more than 95,000").

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