Inquiry: Earning the Right to Believe

Crazy belief or not?
“Ground up unicorn horn will detect the presence of poison.”
In early modern Europe, belief in unicorns and the virtue of their horns was widely accepted. As would be expected, people acted on their beliefs. Thus, a supposed unicorn horn was of course valuable because of its ability to detect poison. So one that belonged to the king of France was priced at £20,000 pounds in 1553. Mary Stuart (1542-87), Queen of Scotland bought a piece of unicorn’s horn and used it regularly to test for poison. (Jackson, 2004)
Of course, it is now well-known that what were believed to be unicorn horns are in fact the tusks of narwhals and that they have no special poison detecting properties. (Maynard, 2014)
We know this because investigators have inquired into the belief; that is, searched systematically for evidence that would give us the right to believe or not in the existence of unicorns.
While there are a variety of different ways that scientists conduct their investigations, at the core of all science is inquiry with its assumption that beliefs about the natural world must be earned by patient investigation. To the scientific mind it is wrong to “believe on insufficient evidence or to nourish belief by suppressing doubts and avoiding investigation.”(Clifford, 1876, p. 292)
The practical value of inquiry is that it provides “strategies with which to examine evidence systematically, interpret, and control our surroundings. Knowledge of science can enable us to think critically and frame productive questions. Without evidence that supports or refutes an idea we are wholly dependent on others as “experts.” With evidence, we are empowered to become participants rather than merely observers.” (Michaels and others, 2007, p. 2)
A vivid illustration of the importance of inquiry can be found in the case of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a British physician and researcher.
Along with twelve colleagues, Wakefield published a research paper in the British medical journal Lancet in 1998 that “reported on 12 developmentally challenged children” who were diagnosed with “regressive”“autism as well as with “non-specific colitis.” The paper identified a “new syndrome” that linked brain (autism) and bowel disease” and which was caused by vaccination with the MMR vaccine. (Deer, 2011)
The MMR vaccine has been used successfully since 1971 to immunize infants against measles, mumps, and rubella, so naturally the news that MMR vaccine was connected to autism spread rapidly. The consequence of the news was a world-wide scare about the MMR vaccine as well as a reduction in the number of children who were immunized against measles, mumps, and rubella. In Britain the vaccination rate fell from 92% to 78.9%, for example.
Wakefield’s article also caused the development of a movement against all childhood vaccinations including, for example, the DTaP that protects children from diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, or whooping cough.
Despite its publication in the Lancet, the experiment on which the conclusions were based seemed flawed. It was a study based on a sample of only 12 children; there was no control group; the data wasn’t analyzed as a whole but selectively; its conclusions were highly speculative (that MMR was related to autism) given the long history of the successful use of the MMR vaccine.
A more detailed inquiry by a journalist named Brian Deer by soon found significant problems in the research.
For example, some of the children’s problems were detected months before the child had received the MMR vaccine.
Even more revealing was Deer’s finding that Dr. Wakefield had been employed a lawyer and paid £400,000 by a lawyer working with a group of parents who were suing the pharmaceutical company that produced the MMR vaccine, and that his research was to create evidence to be used in the law suit.
Even the selection of the subjects for the study was facilitated by the lawyer for whom Wakefield worked. The lawyer solicited subjects for the study by specifying particular symptoms which meant that “the evidence that launched the vaccine scare — was bound to be found by the …clinicians because this was how the children were selected.” (Deer), 2011)
The sensational nature of the Wakefield conclusions spurred a flurry of investigations, none of which was able to confirm the Wakefield findings.
As the cascade of problems appeared, ten of the twelve co-authors of the article retracted their support for the MMR-autism connection because “no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient.” (Rao, and others 2011)
Ultimately, the British General Medical Council (GMC) investigated Dr. Wakefield’s possible misconduct. In January of 2010, a tribunal of the GMC found three dozen charges against Wakefield proved, including dishonesty and the abuse of developmentally challenged children. The tribunal found that Wakefield “had failed in his duties as a responsible consultant, acted both against the interests of his patients, and “dishonestly and irresponsibly”“in his published research.
The editor of the Lancet fully retracted the article and stated that the paper was utterly false and that the journal had been deceived. (See the notes in resources for the sources)
Despite the fact that inquiry from a variety of sources revealed that both Wakefield and his research to be fraudulent and was retracted from the medical literature in 2010, still in 2016 self-declared experts including celebrities and even some politicians continue to disseminate the fraudulent claim that vaccinations are the cause of autism, with the consequence that parents are led to withhold vaccination and thus protection against serious disease from their children.
There were outbreaks of measles attributed to lack of immunization in the UK in 2008 and 2009 as well as in the U.S. as well as outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) with 48,000 cases with fatal outcomes for 20 children. (CDC,
These facts support Clifford’s warning that failure to work for the right to believe by rigorous inquiry has the result that we “all suffer severely from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to… . There is a danger to society that “is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them….” (Clifford, 1876, p. 294)
Clifford, W.K. (1876). The Ethics of Belief, Contemporary Review (29) 1876.

Deer, Brian (2011). How the case against the MMR virus was fixed. BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 06 January 2011)

Jackson, William (2004). The use of unicorn horn in medicine. The Phamaceutical Journal, 18 December 2004.

Maynard, James (2014) Narwhal tusk – Scientists finally solve its real purpose. TechTimes retrieved

Michaels, and others (2007). Ready, Set, Science! (National Research Council, Washington, DC)

Rao, Saythyanarayana and Chittaranjan Andrade (2011). The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud. Indian Journal of Psychiatry 2011 Apr-Jun; 53(2): 96-96. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.82529

Notes on the Wakefield Case:
“MMR-row doctor failed in his duties”. Yorkshire Evening Post. 28 January 2010. Archived from the original on 30 January 2010. Retrieved 28 January 2010.

Triggle, Nick (28 January 2010). “MMR scare doctor ‘acted unethically’, panel finds”. BBC News. Archived from the original on 28 January 2010. Retrieved 28 January 2010.

Boseley, Sarah (28 January 2010). “Andrew Wakefield found ‘irresponsible’ by GMC over MMR vaccine scare”. The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on 14 February 2011. Retrieved 9 January 2011.

Inquiry, W.K. Clifford, The Ethics of Belief, the right to believe, Andrew Wakefield, The Lancet, measles, mumps, rubella, MMR vaccine

“I really hope it works:” Digital Technology for Instruction


There are many classrooms like English teacher Amy Furman’s featured in a 2011 article Classroom of the Future: Stagnant Scores.

Amy’s thirty-one students are studying Shakespeare’s As You Like It, taking advantage of 21st century digital technology.

Amy is not “giving the students notes” but is circulating among her students observing, offering comments and suggestions as her laptop-equipped students engage themselves with the play in very nontraditional ways.

In the place of an essay on the play’s plot, the students are blogging, or creating Facebook pages for the characters, while others are writing about why the love-smitten Silvius would like a particular rap by Kanye West.

Amy expressed her pleasure with what is going on in her “very dynamic classroom” adding “I really hope it works.”(Richtel, 2011)

This technology-rich classroom is one outcome of a 2005 referendum in which the voters passed a bond referendum that gave the Kyrene School District in Arizona $45 million to “transform the very nature of the classroom, turning the teacher into a guide for students who will learn at their own pace on Internet-connected devices.”

The high cost of the technology needed for the transformation makes the question whether it works a matter of concern.

In 2011, as now, the evidence that such investment in digital technology has been at best ambiguous. Overall, the data that supports the use of technology is “pretty weak” according to Tom Vander Ark, former executive director for education and an investor in educational technology companies.(Richtel, 2011)

In the eleven years after it passed its technology referendum and five years since Amy Furman expressed both the pleasure of teaching in a technology-rich classroom as well as her “hope” that it works, Kyrene School District remains a technology-rich school system. The students in its nineteen elementary and middle schools perform above average, earning an “A” ranking in the Arizona school accountability system.

Its 2016 Website cites the district’s “technology enhanced curriculum” and the fact that

Throughout the entire district, every classroom is enhanced with a variety of technology tools: wireless laptop computers; many with multi-touch display, a projector, a document camera, and iPads, so that students have hands-on access to technology as part of their everyday instruction and learning. Elementary classrooms also have interactive whiteboards. Students use industry-standard word processor and spread sheet programs, specialized graphics and education software, and web-based applications and information sources. Teachers participate in regular staff development and mentoring programs to help them to better use these incredible tools. (Kyrene School District)

Is Kyrene’s success the result of its rich technology or because in it also has both technology along with a well-developed system of instructional support for its teachers: academic coaches and educational technology specials for all subjects?

In education there are no “silver bullets” whether educational technology, textbooks or curriculum.   “One-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what’s already occurring—for better or worse—in classrooms, schools, and districts. (Goodman, 2011)

If Kyrene is a positive example of the implementation of educational technology, what happened with the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Instructional Technology Initiative (ITI) is a negative one.

The debacle began in 2013 with a district investment of $1.3 billion that was to put an Apple iPad loaded with instructional software from educational giant Pearson in the hands of every child in every school. But by 2015 the district wanted out of the deal claiming that the software didn’t work and that the iPads had fatal security holes.

An observer noted that if one of the largest school districts in the nation, one of the largest educational publisher and the largest technology company couldn’t successfully integrate instructional technology into classrooms, who could? (Lapowski, 2015)

The answer lies up the coast from Los Angeles,  where the Milpitas Unified School District also has made a significant investment in personal technology and has successfully used blended learning to create personalized instruction for its students.

The contrast between the two school districts in how their instructional technology programs came about is instructive.

In Los Angeles, the Instructional Technology Initiative began at the top as did the Milpitas project. However, in Milpitas, Cary Matsuoka, the superintendent began by asking his principals the question: “If you could design the school of the future, what would it look like?”

His goal was to “give principals and teachers the autonomy to determine what would work best for their schools.” Mandating from the top, he reflected, and you “get compliance, where people go through the motions.”

The answers also got him and his district to the understanding that one-to-one wasn’t needed because the principals proposed a “rotation model” in which students would  use the devices in shifts.

The district chose Chromebooks; they are less expensive than iPads because they are cloud based, central management and updating are less of a hassle.

As a departing Board of Education recalled about his eight years on the Board”We went through both academic and sport renewal and modernization, implemented blended learning and common core, build a high-tech infrastructure and new athletic facilities.… For the past eight years, we saw student achievement improved significantly, we are also financially solid.” (Mohammed, 2016)

The contrasting examples provided by Kyrene and Milpitas versus the LAUSD debacle support the contention that educational technology if it is implemented based on a shared vision that include the identification of the actual problem to be solved, if the school and district leadership supports all aspects of the implementation. Implementation requires the development of a technology infrastructure and a culture of professional learning that includes the community, parents and guardians, all school personnel, and the development of a coaching/mentoring model. This last is important because the technology will be a catalyst for changing the connections between learning and instruction.


Greaves, T., Hayes, J., Wilson, L., Gielniak, M., & Peterson, R. Project Red: Revolutionizing Education: Nine Keys to Student Achievement and Cost Effectivenss. Retrieved from

Goodman, B. (2011). Research Says…/One-to-One Laptop Programs Are No Silver Bullet. EdLeadership, 68), 78-79. Retrieved from

Lapowski, I. (2015). What Schools Must Learn From LA’s IPad Debacle. Wired. Retrieved from

Mohammed, Aliyah (2016). Milpitas: School boar names permanent MUSD superintendent. The Mercury News, November 17, 2016. Retrieved from

Richtel, M. (2011c). In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores. New York Times. Retrieved from

ESSA, Measuring the Benefits of School Improvement: And How To Do It

Even by the crudest measures, education benefits the individual in terms of earnings and the economy as a whole in more productive workers. The longer an educational system holds on to students, the better for both the individual and economy. The years of education is a measure is called “educational attainment.”

Dissatisfaction with the number of years of schooling as a measure of economic impact led Eric A. Hanushek and two international colleagues to develop a measure that better captures what students have actually learned during their years in school. As Hanushek, et. al. describe educational attainment: “…it hardly matters how long one sits at a school desk if one learns little while occupying the seat.” (Hanushek, Ruhose, & Woessmann, 2016)

The model developed by Hanushek, et. al. uses a measure which they call “knowledge capital” which is a state’s NAEP mathematics scores over time. This measure,  added to traditional measures provides a way to document the long-term impact of student-achievement levels on economic growth, as well as the value of the monetary return for school improvement efforts, state by state[1].

By measuring the growth of each of the fifty U.S. states for the period 1970-2010, the authors show that a state’s knowledge capital is related to the state growth in per-capita GDP.

States like Alabama, Mississippi, Nevada, and Utah suffered from both low math achievement and low economic growth, while states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Virginia had both high levels of math achievement along with higher levels of economic growth.

While there are exceptions to the general findings, the authors conclude that “achievement levels that are 1 standard deviation higher — for example having the average worker in a state achieve at the 69th  percentile rather than the 31st   percentile of the overall distribution of cognitive skills — yield an average annual growth that is 1.4 percentage points higher.” (Hanushek, Ruhose, & Woessmann, 2016)

The article includes a an interactive map that can be used to project future gains in GDP growth under four different reform scenarios.

For example, first scenario describes what would happen if all the states were able to take actions that would increase the knowledge capital to the level of Minnesota (the best in the U.S.). Under that scenario “the overall gains would equal, in 2015 dollars, $76 trillion, or more than four times the current GDP of the United States.”

South Carolina ranks 40th  in terms of growth 1970-2010. Its per-capita DGP is $31,819 and has grown 1.99% over the period.  Under the “all states to the U.S. best” scenario, the value of South Carolina reform efforts would be $992 billion which equals 485% of the state’s current per-capita GDP and would increase the state’s GDP by 41% by 2095.

Hanushek and his colleagues are careful to point out that school reform is a long-term project. They assume that it takes a decade of effort before a reform is fully implemented, with student skills steadily improving over that time.

The message from Hanushek, et. al, is that the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives state and local educators a great deal of flexibility to take decisive action that will improve their state’s knowledge capital.  Given the potential of large gains for taking the right actions, the question becomes what kinds of action would help the state build its knowledge capital?

Massachusetts underwent a serious reform effort that began in the late 1980s. Its example suggests the necessary conditions for sustained and successful reform.

The success of reform in Massachusetts is supported by the fact that if it were an independent nation it would rank among the top ten nations in student learning. Its eighth graders rank number two in science and sixth in mathematics. Low-income children of color do much better than their peers in other U.S. states.

It wasn’t always that way.

In a 1991 report authored by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education it was reported that the state faced a crisis because “the public education system is failing to provide its students with the knowledge and skills necessary for them to be productive, informed citizens in coming decades…The inability of many public school students/graduates to qualify for entry-level jobs or to compete successfully with their counterparts from other industrialized countries is a clear signal that the education system needs to undergo dramatic improvements soon.”(MBAE, 1991, pp.  ES-1)

Noting that Massachusetts over the past two decades has been consistently near the top of any list of states with the most successful school reforms (it ranks 2nd  in the Hanushek, et. al. analysis), looked at the decisions Massachusetts made beginning more than 20 years ago and which resulted in sustained improvement in the state’s knowledge capital.

In the Achieve analysis, there are six “key strategies” identified. It seems to me that two of these stand out because they are the most difficult to do but seem to the ones that set the Massachusetts reform apart from those in other states.

What stands out in Massachusetts was what was termed the “grand bargain” are two factors: equitable funding and the political will to stick to the plan.

First, a change in how the schools were funded began in 1993 with the promise that within seven years, all of the town and city school departments would have the resources to carry out the goal of student mastery of the state standards. “In our poorest communities in particular, [state] aid is the lifeline that brings a high quality education within reach of children and frequently supports more than 80 percent of the total expenditures of in the neediest districts.”(Chester, 2014, p.  6)

The second remarkable aspect has been the consistent support from state’s leadership,  governors, business leaders, and legislature. The support helped maintain the reform even “during the highest levels of political opposition to the reforms. Governor Jane Swift never blinked on the MCAS high school graduation requirement. Governor Romney also kept the momentum going by sustaining the foundation budget for the K-12 public education.”(, 2009, p.  9)

Note: Schools in New England states are generally departments of the town or city they serve. Instead of a school district, the schools are a department of the town. So it is the school department rather than the school district.

Resources: (2009). Taking Root: Massachusetts Lessons for Sustaining the College and Career-Ready Agenda. Achieve: American Diploma Project Network. Retrieved from

Chester, M. D. (2014). Building on 20 Years of Massachusetts Education Reform. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Hanushek, E. A., Ruhose, J., & Woessmann, L. (2016). It Pays to Improve School Quality. Education Next, 16(3). Retrieved from

MBAE. (1991). Every Child A Winner. Retrieved from


Every Student Succeeds Act, education, economy, knowledge capital, school reform, Massachusetts

[1] The analysis used data from the U.S. census to make adjustments for the migration of workers in and out of each state. While workers move from state to state, 87% of students receive their K-12 education in their birth state.

Dynamic Facts


Great fleas have lesser fleas to bite em; and so on, ad infinitum

According to the Centers for Disease Control, as of September 21, 2016, there are a total of 3,358 cases of Zika in the U.S.. 43 of these were acquired by being infected by local mosquitoes; 3,314 infections were acquired outside of the U.S.; 28 cases were acquired by sexual contact; with 1 having been acquired in a laboratory. There are also 8 cases of Guillian-Barré syndrome;  “a rare disorder in which your body’s immune system attacks your nerves. Weakness and tingling in your extremities are usually the first symptoms.”These sensations can quickly spread, eventually paralyzing your whole body. In its most severe form Guillain-Barre syndrome is a medical emergency. (Mayo Clinic)

The case of Zika provides insight into our natural world. The questions of why Zika, a disease that originated in a distant forest in central Africa and why it has become of particular health concern in the U.S. can be understood by looking at how natural phenomena appear to work.

Natural phenomena can be thought of as facts but are perhaps better understood as facts that are in dynamic relationship with one another: insects, viruses, humans, environments. The facts you think you know now are busily changing into new facts that.

Insects have a variety of ways of getting their nourishment: they can sip (like butterflies); they can chew (locusts); they can pierce and suck (mosquitoes).  The mosquito way of dining is different for males and females. The males are sippers; their mouthparts are adapted to collecting plant nectars.

Females can both sip nectar but in order to successfully lay eggs that will hatch, they need vertebrate blood and its protein and iron. To get this mother mosquitoes use their mouthparts to pierce and suck reliable sources of blood like humans.

Valerie Choumet, a scientist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris captured the process used by a female mosquito to get her blood meal.

As the female mosquito pushes its bundle of six mouth parts (two maxillae, two mandibles, a double tube (hypopharynx and labrum) into the skin, the labium or sheath folds back. The two mandibles and a pair of maxillae are used to saw through the skin and then to anchor the insect so that she can push a double tube (hypopharynx and labrum) to search for a blood vessel. While the tube appears to be stiff, it is actually highly flexible and is fully controllable by the mosquito, even bending it at right angles.

She spits saliva down the hypopharynx, this prevents blood from coagulating and the labrun is used to pierce a blood vessel and to suck up the blood.

You can view the video here.

The mosquito’s blood dinner will pay off when she lays her eggs in or near water. The eggs nourished by the proteins and iron from the blood will hatch out and eventually become mosquitoes. If the female mosquito is herself infected with Zika, the eggs will develop into mosquitoes that are also infected with Zika.(University of Texas at Galveston, 2016)

But the blood dinner has another another organism with a different purpose. There is a whole group of viruses that have adapted themselves to using the mosquito as a way to get into vertebrates where they can breed. These are known as arboviruses (from arthropod borne viruses).

When she sucks up the blood of a human who has the virus in his blood, the mosquito becomes infected. The virus does not grow in the mosquito but will remain in the mosquito until she spits, along with the spit the virus particles will hitch a ride, putting the virus into the blood stream of a vertebrate where it can fulfill its destiny.

The  mosquito and its  passenger virus are apparently well-adapted to one another.  New research has shown that the saliva of the mosquito “causes an inflammation that helps the virus particles multiply and quickly spread to other parts of your body.” (Kupferschmidt, 2016)

The Zika virus is little more than RNA covered with a protein coat shaped as a 20-sided polygon called icosahedron, resembling “sinister Christmas ornaments.”

The virus attaches itself to the surface of the host’s cells, penetrates, turns its RNA into DNA and “hijacks the internal machinery of the host’s cells to copy its own DNA and make new cells. Like commandos invading a town and converting its car factory into a bomb factory, the virus makes thousands of copies of itself. Eventually the cell explodes, and the viruses are released to attack other cells, spreading the illness.” (McNeil, 2016, p. 23) You can see a more detailed animated account of this process the HHIBioInteractive Website .

The Zika virus was first identified in 1947 by researchers in the Zika forest on the northern shore of Lake Victoria in central Africa. The infected animal was an Asian monkey. The first human case didn’t occur until 1952.

In the early cases the Zika virus caused a fever along with body aches and discomfort but cleared up with no apparent ill-effects.

The twentieth century has seen changes like  “a combination of warmer weather moving mosquitoes north, of cheaper, more frequent jet travel helping people reach new continents with viruses still fresh in their blood” meaning that even obscure diseases from remote parts of the world can quickly become notable in highly populated places. (McNeil, 2016, p. )

Zika appeared in the western Pacific on the island of Yap, then in Tahiti, in French Polynesia.

It made its appearance in the Western Hemisphere in 2014 with  grim discoveries in the maternity wards of hospitals in the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco.

Doctors and nurses noticed that there were suddenly new borns with “this thing we had never seen…” “Children with normal faces up to the eyebrows, and then you have no foreheads…The doctors were saying, ‘Well, I saw four today,’ and ‘Oh, that’s strange, because I saw two.’” (McNeil, 2016, pp.13-14)

Later it was realized that what they were seeing was microcephaly, a birth defect that was the result of the fetal brain failing to develop. Further investigation revealed that the mothers whose children had microcephaly had also been infected by the Zika virus. It was also the case that apparently it didn’t matter at what stage in their pregnancy infection occurred.

Our habit of teaching science as sets of facts makes it easy to forget that facts are dynamic; the natural world is constant motion.  The genomic revolution has made it possible to investigate change at the level of the mechanisms of change.

In an research paper that focuses on dengue, a relative of Zika, Ciota & Kramer (2010) observe that in order to survive the virus cycles back and forth between vertebrates and blood-eating arthropods. This means that there is a premium on the virus being “plastic” in order to be able to take advantage of new environments. RNA viruses like Zika are subject to rapid replication as well as large error rates. These two factors may explain why such viruses are able to undertake “quick exploration of fitness landscapes and production of variance which may have an advantage in different host environments.” (Ciota & Kramer, 2010).

It is therefore not surprising that the Zika, in its travels around the world, would evolve new ways of spreading itself (crossing the placenta barrier; sexual transmission) and developing new targets for infection (nerve tissue).


Ciota, Alexander T. & Laura D. Kramer (2010). Insights into Arbovirus Evolution and Adaptation from Experimental Studies. Viruses. 2010 Dec; 2(12): 2594-2617. doi:  10.3390/v2122594

You can watch a detailed account of how a flavivirus (Dengue) “hijacks” a cell at HHMI BioInteractive (2016. Dengue Transmission.

Kupferschmidt, Kai (2016).  Mosquito spit helps viruses make us sick. Science, June 21, 2016.

DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf5794

McNeil, Donald G. Jr. (2016). ZIKA: THE EMERGING EPIDEMIC. W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

Yong, Ed (2013). NOT EXACTLY ROCKET SCIENCE: Here’s What Happens Inside You When a Mosquito Bites. (August 8, 2013).

Wang, Lulan, Stephanie G. Valderramos, and others. From Mosquitoes to Humans: Genetic Evolution of Zika Virus. Cell Host & Microbe. 19(5), pp. 561-565. May 2016.


University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. (2016, August 30). Female mosquitoes can transmit Zika virus to their eggs, offspring: Killing only adult mosquitoes may not end Zika outbreaks. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 22, 2016 from



Zika, arbovirus, mosquitoes, transmission, adaptation, organisms, environments

Truly Modern: More Room for Learning

In 1909, one of the years during the decades when the American K-12 school system was taking its modern form, Charles Eliot, Harvard’s newly retired president was consummating a deal to publish a “five-foot shelf” of books that would contain all of the important knowledge needed by an educated person.

As first printed in 1910 each set of “The Harvard Classics” consisted of 50 hefty volumes containing the works of 300 authors. Eliot claimed that these fifty books could serve as a “portable university” making available six distinct courses of study: “The History of Civilization,” “Religion and Philosophy,” “Education,” “Science,” “Politics,” and “Criticism of Literature and the Fine Arts.” Eliot further claimed that reading the complete set would provide the equivalent of a liberal college education.  (Kirsch, 2001)

Although we are more than a century beyond the five-foot shelf, the idea that there is a fixed body of facts and procedures to know remains embedded in the DNA of our educational culture.

The modern version of the five-foot shelf is also to be mastered largely by reading the essential texts under the supervision of teachers who will monitor student progress using a system of regularly scheduled tests.

Significantly, both Eliot’s five-foot shelf and our schools were developed well before we understood very much about our brains or how people learned. (Sawyer, 2006, pp. 1-2)

It is only in the recent three or four decades that the study of learning has been based on findings in psychology, computer science, philosophy, sociology, and other science disciplines.  The new understandings have shown that many of the assumptions underlying traditional educational practices programmed into our educational DNA are seriously flawed.

During the decades when the assumptions and practices of the modern school emerged it was believed that children were essentially just smaller, ignorant adults.

To become proper adults they needed teachers who would stuff them full of improving knowledge such as that found in Eliot’s five foot shelf of books.

To illustrate: During a nationwide tour of American schools in 1892, pediatrician Dr. Joseph Mayer Rice, recorded his impressions of a New York City elementary school and in particular of the pedagogical views of its principal: “She believes that when a child enters upon school life his vocabulary is so small that it is practically worthless, and his power to think so feeble that his thoughts are worthless. She is consequently of the opinion that what a child knows and is able to do on coming to school should be entirely disregarded, and he should not be allowed to waste time, either in thinking or in finding his own words to express his thoughts, but that he should be supplied with ready-made thoughts is given in a ready-made vocabulary…Each child is treated as if he possessed a memory and the faculty of speech, but no individuality, no sensibilities, no soul.” (Rice, 1893, pp. 30-31)

But in contrast to the beliefs of Rice’s principal, the research findings from the past four decades have shown that human babies possess a brain; and that this brain is a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants and other people.” (Pinker, 1997, p. 21)

One of the contributions of computer science to our understanding of the brain has grown out of attempts to create intelligent machines or artificial intelligence (AI). Early explorations in AI involved the development of artificial neural networks to simulate the the brain’s neocortex with its billions of networked neurons.

Advances in technology (more powerful processors and larger storage in addition to more sophisticated mathematics) have created larger and more powerful artificial neural networks.

“Last June, a Google deep-learning system that had been “trained by viewing” 10 million images from YouTube videos proved almost twice as good as any previous image recognition effort at identifying objects such as cats. Google also use the technology to cut the error rate on speech recognition in its latest Android mobile software. In October, Microsoft chief research officer Rick Rashid wowed attendees at a lecture in China with a demonstration of speech software that transcribed his spoken words into English text with an error rate of 7%, translated them into Chinese language text, and then simulated his own voice uttering them in Mandarin.” (Hof, 2016)

The method used to train the neural network so that it is able to accomplish these impressive tasks, speak, understand language, and recognize objects, “with the eventual goal…to get the network to consistently recognize the patterns in speech or sets of images that we humans know as, say, the phoneme “d” or the image of a dog…is much the same as how a child learns what a dog is by noticing the details of head shape, behavior, and the like in furry, barking animals that other people call dogs.” (Hof, 2016)

The wonders of what virtual neurons are capable of learning may divert attention from the ensorcelling power of human brains with real neural networks to learn, imagine and create.

While the virtual neural network needs lots of smart and expensive engineers to learn to recognize (most of time!) the image of a cat in a YouTube video, give a baby brain a safe, well-lighted place with humans to interact with and she can learn several languages that she can use by the time she’s four to wrap the adults around her tiny fingers.

Like living organisms, human institutions such as schools are more likely to survive in a changing world when practices evolve in the direction of greater consistency with new empirically-based understandings; such as that the brain has been shaped by evolution to solve problems of existence rather than as a passive storehouse of facts and procedures.


Bransford, John D., (2001)  How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Expanded Edition. National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. 2001.

Fisher, Douglas, Nancy Frey, Carol Rothenberg (2008). Content Area Conversations. ASCD. Retrieved from

Kirsch, Adam (2001). The Harvard Magazine, November-December 2001

Hof, Robert D. (2016).  Deep Learning: With Massive amounts of computational power, machines can now recognize and translate speech in real time. Artificial intelligence is finally getting smart. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved 10/7/2016


Sawyer, R. Keith ( ed.).  “The New Science Learning” in The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. 2006.



brain, neurons, virtual neurons, Artificial Intelligence, learning, DNA, Charles Eliot, The Harvard Classics

A Barrier Overcome: Residencies for Teachers

There is an awkwardly located pothole in the road that leads students from their professional education in college to a successful teaching career. The budding teacher has sailed through the content courses, the education specific classes like ed. psych, the instructional methods and clinical experience, but nothing has prepared the new teacher for the first year in a classroom.

As Goodman (2012) reports, the literature on first-year teachers has been very consistent about the problems they face.

First, teachers with three or fewer years of experience are challenged by the difficulties of managing student behavior.

The next challenge is curricular. The teacher knows her subject but she has little guidance about what parts of the subject should be taught to her students. Almost half (41%) of Teach for America teachers reported that neither the district nor their school provided useful instructional resources like lesson plans. Case studies of new teachers show them spending many hours trying to “come up with enough curriculum” and then struggling with how to teach it all the while juggling all the other duties, including paperwork, committees, after school clubs and so forth. (Goodman, 2012)

The “sink-or swim” challenges of classroom behavior and the mystery of curriculum are exacerbated by a professional of catch-22:  in order to become accepted the new teacher must demonstrate that she is good at precisely those things she has the most difficulty with—managing her classroom and successful instruction!

So new teachers report “difficult interactions with colleagues, from neglect by administrators to lack of cooperation or even hostility from veteran teachers.” (Goodman, 2012)

The new teacher’s struggles are often a disaster for his or her students who a likely to do more poorly than their peers being taught by more experienced teachers.

Teaching is a profession which means that solutions to the dilemma of inexperienced teachers must be professional solutions that give the neophyte professional experiences.

The accomplished physician, lawyer, or teacher has, in addition, to content knowledge about medicine, law, or pedagogy, what Lee Shulman called “the wisdom of practice.”

How do professionals acquire the wisdom of practice? New teachers often respond to the challenges posed by their inexperience develop survival rather than professional skills. A lecture appears to be a better approach to instruction than a project with its potential for losing control of the classroom.

A way to prepare the new teacher so that developing professional skills rather than survival skills has been found in the adaptation of one developed in medical education, the residency.

In the early 20th century, medical education was revivified when medical schools affiliated themselves with hospitals and added a multi-year residency in which the newly graduated physician treated patients under the guidance of accomplished physicians who were both medical school faculty as well as being on the staff of the hospital.

An historian of medical education observed that the educational power of the residency lay in  “… the quality of the house officers and faculty, the characteristics of the teaching, giving residents the opportunity to assume responsibility in patient management, the availability of time to reflect and wonder, the opportunity for residents to establish meaningful personal relationships with faculty, patients, and each other, the provision of manageable patient loads, freeing residents from too many extraneous chores, holding high expectations of residents, and conducting residency training in an atmosphere of professional excitement.” (Bank Street, 2016)

In fact, the year-long teacher residency is not something new. Programs already exist in which teacher training programs and school districts and schools are providing new teachers with year-long residencies.

The Louisiana’s Department of Education has devoted 2% of its budget to support the Believe and Prepare partnerships “to create stronger clinical preparation experiences.” According to the report, 60% of Louisiana school districts and 80% of preparation providers have voluntarily partnered in order for “aspiring teachers to work with skilled mentors before they can earn an initial teaching certificate.” (Bank Street, 2016)

U.S. Prep, a program developed at Texas Tech has impressive results with a 90% job retention rate of the teachers who have gone through the program.

According to Karen Demoss the programs like U.S. Prep are important because they help bridge the chasm for the young teacher. Working in a supportive environment with an accomplished teacher gives the neophyte educator the chance for a successful initial year, for both teachers and, even more importantly for their students.  “Students in classroom with residents have been documented to make larger learning gains than those in other classrooms, with strongest benefits going to those with the most need. Residency graduates are also more effective teachers. Rigorous studies have documented how their students outperform peers.” (Demoss, 2016)

The report “For the Public Good,” both describes exemplary teacher residencies and also provides ideas about how to fund such programs.

“For the Public Good” makes the case that if one examines the various funding streams available to states and their districts, it is possible to create a priority list with the year-long teacher residency high on the list given its importance for both beginning teachers and the students they will teach during a long career.

There are funds built-in to the current system to remedy problems that result from inadequate teacher preparation that could be reinvested to support residencies.  Teacher turnover costs school districts about $2.2 billion per year. There are also the costs that result from students who have experienced an ineffective teacher, such as costs for remedial summer school, tutoring, or students dropping out of school all together.

Districts can be thoughtful. For example,  a district might use a portion of the current budget for substitute teachers to hire a promising new graduate who would work four days a week co-teaching with an accomplished veteran leaving one day free when the resident teacher could serve as a substitute where needed.

At the state level the new Every Student Succeeds Act makes it possible to dedicate up to 5% of its Title II part A (professional development) funds to create competitive grants to colleges of education and public school districts to create model residency programs.

Teacher residency may appear to be an expensive luxury; failure to fully prepare teachers makes the luxury into a necessity.



Demoss, Karen (2016).  Five reasons teacher residencies often outperform traditional training. The Hechinger Report retrieved 10/16/2016

Goodwin, Bryan (2012). Research Says/ New Teachers Face Three Common Challenges. Educational Leadership May 2012 (69:8) Supporting Beginning Teachers Pages 84-85. Retrieved from

The Bank Street College of Education (2016). For the Public Good: Quality Preparation for Every Teacher. Retrieved 10/16/2016



teacher preparation, teacher residency, medical education, sustainable funding, The Sustainable Funding Project

Two STEAM Examples

We present two real world examples of ways that STEM and the arts can be connected.

In the first, art museum professionals partner with medical educators to improve medical practice.

In the second, art gallery visitors are guided through an exhibition by A.I. (artificial intelligence technology).

Examining Art to Improve the Medical Examination.

In June of 2016 Bonnie Pitman recently retired as the Director of the Dallas Museum of Art, convened a major conference entitled “The Art of Examination: Art Museum and Medical School Partnerships.  Participants represented sixty art museums and their partner medical schools at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Partnership between art museums and medical schools are part of an emerging field called medical humanities, an interdisciplinary field in which knowledge from the arts makes contributions to medical education and practice.

The conference served as a platform that “provided a sound overview of the fields’ best practices, goals, history, terminology, evaluation, and future directions.” Such partnerships at major art and medical institutions in the U.S. and abroad are advocates for such programs and build a bridge between the arts and sciences.” (Pitman, 2016)

Careful examination of the history, composition, themes presented by an art object marks the work of the art critic or art educator.

Similarly, a physician begins her work with an examination of the patient’s various physical and affective characteristics, some of which may be important to the diagnosis while others are not. The ability to discriminate between the meaningful from the inconsequential is therefore an important skill shared by the art educator and the physician.

The first such art museum-medical school partnerships was created in 1999 when Dr. Irwin Braverman (Yale Medical School) and Linda Friedlaender, (Yale’s British Art Collection) began to work together to develop the observational skills of medical students by training them to use the techniques and language of art criticism as they learned how to examine their patients. (Pitman, 2016)

The connections between art and medical practice have led to at least one hundred such partnerships currently. There were sixty at the conference from U.S. Canada, England, and Italy. Forty more were on a waiting list for the conference.

A growing body of research literature published in medical journals also attests to the power of the intersection of where art museum and art professionals work with medical educators to the benefit of both health care professionals as well as to the community at large.

Going to the Tate Britain with an (artificially) Intelligent computer program named Recognition

You can visit the Tate Britain in London in person or online to both see and interact with the exhibition called Recognition. (Do not delay: Recognition closes on November 27)

The development of the exhibition was stimulated by the offer of the 2016 IK Prize that offers incentives to promote the use of digital technology in the arts.

The Tate Britain’s “mission is to increase the public’s enjoyment and understanding of British art from the 16th century to the present day…” as well as to increase the numbers of people who come to view the art; particularly young millennials whom it is hoped will become the next generation of art lovers.

However, Tony Guillan of the Tate recognized that looking at art and seeing art are not necessarily the same, the difference being that looking is simple discrimination, “that’s a painting,” while seeing connects the art to reality.

The successful quest for the IK prize began with the insight that the project would use A.I. technology, “…because getting machines to do what humans can do is one of the most exciting frontiers in technology…Is there anything more human than looking at art?” (Dobrzynski, 2016)

To compete, Tate Britain enlisted a number of partners: Microsoft, JoliBrain, a French A.I. company, and  Fabrica, an Italian communication research company. Fabrica would lead the development of Tate’s entry.

The team at Fabrica began with the question: “What if we could link our everyday lives to the Tate’s collection to illuminate similarities between the present and the past?” They developed the idea that the goal could be met by allowing the viewers to “see the world through two different lenses,” how the world has been represented historically by artists and how the world is represented today, through the news media.  (Dobrzynski, 2016)

Under Fabrica’s leadership, the partners began to work: Microsoft provided programming support, JoliBrain  contributed their DeepDetect API (application programming interface, a set of routines, protocols, etc. that makes it easier to develop programs) as well as DeepDetect server where the program would be run.

Fabrica put a variety of artificial intelligence technologies together, “including computer vision capabilities, such as object recognition, facial recognition, colour and composition analysis; and natural language analysis; and natural language processing of text associated with images, allowing it to analyze context and subject matter and produce written description of the images comparisons.” (

As Recognition (or [re] [cognition]) works it creates a virtual collection of images by matching works from the Tate Britain collection with contemporary news photos from the news agency Reuters. The matches are based on similarities of objects, faces, composition, theme that the A.I. finds as it views images.

The human viewer can click to stop the process in order to examine any of the matches in the virtual gallery in order to give Recognition feedback by responding to the prompt: “what makes this an interesting match?”

A.I. has been used in health care and transportation but A.I. in art is “uncharted space” according to Microsoft’s Eric Horovitz which is why Microsoft was interested in working with the project. It is an opportunity to see how A.I. can be “creative and make mistakes and meander.” (Dobrzynski, 2016)

The humanities and science and technology are often seen as separate worlds; the one supposedly subjective, intuitive, vague; the other, objective, precise fact-filled.

But perhaps not. A medical student constructing her examination of a patient using language and insights from art criticism; Science? Art?

Human art gallery visitors are given a tour by an A.I. program that shows works from the gallery matched with news photos.

The humans are asked for their assessment of the match. The program uses the human generated assessments to refine its matches.

Humans and machine learn from one another. Humanities? Art? Technology? Science?

Time to reasses our categories.




Dobrzynski, J. H. (2016c). Artificial Intelligence as a Bridge for Art and Reality. New York Times, p. 18. Retrieved from

Sheets, H. M. (2016c). How an Aesthete’s Eye Can Help a Doctor’s Hand

New York Times. Retrieved from


Pitman, B. (2016). The Art of Examination: Art Museum and Medical School Parnerships. Proceedings from The Art of Examination: Art Museum and Medical School Parnerships, New York and Dallas.


STEM, STEAM, art museum-medical school partnerships, clinical practice, A.I., Tate Britain, human assessment, A.I. and art

The (Phylogenetic) Tree of Life


In the new issue of Nature Microbiology, a team of scientists has published a graphical representation of the evolution of organisms, a new tree of life.

The new tree shows that “bacteria make up most of life’s branches. And [the team] found that much of that diversity has been waiting in plain sight to be discovered, dwelling in river mud and meadow soils….’It is a momentous discovery — an entire continent of life forms.’”(Zimmer, 2016)

The quest to represent all of life on Earth has a long history. Aristotle’s works are filled with facts about natural history and Pliny the Elder composed a huge encyclopedia of what the Romans believed they knew about nature.

In 1859, Charles Darwin suggested that it is possible to show how the “affinities of all the beings of the same class” could be represented by a “great tree.” (Darwin, p. 203)

How Darwin’s “great tree” was made possible is in part the story of the work of a biophysicist named Carl Woese whose work created the first tree of life, one that was actually based on evolutionary principles.

The modern story of the quest for  begins with the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Linnaeus) who published his Systema Naturae in 1735. The Systema was Linné’s answer to the question of how to organize the huge mass of living organisms so that it is possible to see how all the different individuals and groups fit together.

But which individuals get included in a particular class?

Both birds and bats eat insects and use their ability to fly to snatch insect food out of the air.

Do bats and birds make up a “class of beings?”

Linné’s solution was  to create a system of classification that grouped organisms by their physical traits. So plants whose flowers had similar numbers of stamens in the same grouping, or animals that got their food by predation were grouped together.

After Darwin, biologists used Linné’s system of classification (that is, grouping organisms according to their visible traits) to describe the branches on the tree of life, and by the first half of the 20th century there were five main branches: Animalia, Plantae, Fungi, Protista, and Monera.

In the 1960s biophysicist Carl Woese found this to be a highly unsatisfactory approach.

For Woese “the morphology-metabolism approach was like trying to create a genealogical history using only photographs and drawings. Are people with dimples on their right cheeks and long ring fingers all members of the same family? Maybe, but probably not.” (Arnold, 2014)

Woese observed that the “biologist has customarily structured his world in terms of…dichotomies. Classically, what was not plant was animal.” But the discovery that bacteria did not fit into the dichotomy (they resembled both plants and animals ) forced biologists to reconsider the question.  (Woese & Fox, 1977, p. 5088)

Early in his career Woese had done research on the newly discovered genetic code at the Pasteur Institute in Paris; and genes, of course, are intimately connected to evolution.  This led Woese to see that a “tree of life” could be constructed using genetic data in order to actually show the evolutionary relationships among organisms.

The creation of a tree of life defined by evolutionary connections rather than by physical similarities was what Woese had in mind when he arrived at the University of Illinois as a young professor in 1964.

“To create his evolutionary tree of life…Woese would need to choose a gene that was present in every known organism, one that was copied from generation to generation…and [which] mutated slowly…. ‘This would let him make a direct measure of evolutionary history….By tracking these gene sequences…he could calculate evolutionary distance between two organisms and make a map of how life on Earth many have evolved.”

The gene he chose is one found n the ribosome, a structure present in all living cells and which is the site of biological protein synthesis. He selected the gene labeled 16S rRNA.

In the 1960s gene sequencing was done by hand, separating genetic material using electrophoresis and then using a magnifying glass and a light box to examine the resulting bands of RNA. Woese and his colleague George Fox entered the sequences onto IBM 80 column punch cards and used them in a program that matched sequences and which allowed them to identify evolutionary connections among organisms.

It took Woese and his colleague George Fox a full ten years of work sequencing 16S rRNA in a variety of different organisms.  (Arnold, 2014)

The hard work paid off when Woese was working on a group of prokaryotes called a methanogenes. They expected to find that the group was related to the bacteria. “When they finally analyzed its fingerprint, looking nothing like any of the other bacteria Woese and Fox had previously analyzed…To fellow microbiologist Ralph Wolfe, Woese announced, ‘I don’t even think these are bacteria.’” (Arnold, 2014)

This discovery overturned the previous view that all life on Earth belonged to either the eukaryotes (animals, plants, fungi, and some single-celled animals) or the prokaryotes, organisms whose cells lack a nucleus.

In 1977,  Woese and Fox published their findings in an article entitled “Phylogenetic structure of the prokaryotic domain: The primary kingdoms.” The article was groundbreaking enough to merit a New York Times article on June 19, 1978, “Scientists Identify More Members of The ‘Third Kingdom of Life….”

In their publication, Woese and Fox made three principle points: (1) That the tree of life had three main branches, not two or five; bacteria, eucaryotes (eucarya), and archaea; (2)“An organism’s genome seems to be the ultimate record of its evolutionary history”;  and (3) “the comparative analysis of molecular sequences has become a powerful approach to determining evolutionary relationships.” (Woese & Fox, 1977)

The new tree of life is a descendant of the one constructed by Woese and Fox nearly four decades ago. By taking advantage of new understandings (molecular biology) and techniques (gene sequencing) Woese demonstrated that the prokaryote-eukaryote model (what I learned in biology a half century ago) was erroneous. By looking at organisms at the molecular level, the real evolutionary history was uncovered.


Arnold, C. (2014). The Man Who Rewrote the Tree of Life. Retrieved from http:

Darwin, C. (2016). The Origin of Species. iBooks.

Hug, L. A., Baker, B. J., Anantharaman, K., Brown, C. T., Probst, A. J., Castelle, C. J., . . . Banfield, J. F. (2016). A new view of the tree of life. Nature Microbiography, 16048. Retrieved from

Woese, C. R., & Fox, G. E. (1977). Phylogenetic structure of the prokaryotic domain: The Primary Kingdoms. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 74(11), 5088-5090.

Woese, C. R., Kandler, O., & Wheelis, M. L. (1990). Towards a natural system of organisms: Proposals for the domains Archae, Bacteria, and Eucarya. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 87, 4576-4579. Retrieved from

Zimmer, C. (2016). Scientists Unveil New ‘Tree of Life’. New York Times. Retrieved from


evolution, Carl Woese, phylogeny, tree of life, Archaea, Eucary, Bacteria, prokaryotes, eukaryotes

Raising Bébé Part 1

It is easy to acquire the illusion that how you think and do things is how others think and do things. Things that are done in one country as a matter of course sometimes appear strange or undoable from the perspective of people in other countries.

So when I saw a book called Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, I was curious. After all there is a renewed interest in the importance of early childhood education in relationship to later school success. What does it look like in France?

The author, Pamela Druckerman, by profession a reporter and a New Yorker, moved to Paris as a consequence of marrying Simon, a Briton and also a reporter (speciality: Dutch football). So far in their French life, they have had three children, a girl, “Bean[1]” and twins, Joel and Leo, all born and so far brought up in France.

Pamela is a reporter of the investigative type. When she sees a mystery, she must investigate. “What is going on here?” is her reflex response.

What is the puzzle? When she and Simon went on a holiday to the shore why were the French children in sharp contrast to their child “sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food, or eating fish, and even vegetables. There’s no shrieking or whining. Everyone is having one course at a time. And there’s no debris around the table.” (Druckerman, p. 2)

Her book is does not offer a new theory of child rearing; instead, it is her attempt to resolve a question about children and education.

”I haven’t got a theory. What I do have, spread out in front of me, is a fully functioning society of good little sleepers, gourmet eaters, and reasonably relaxed parents. I’m starting with that outcome and working backward to figure out how the French got there.” (Druckerman, pp. 7-8)

I will leave you to read the book if you choose to see what you think about her conclusions.[2]

The section of the book I was most interested in was how the French approach 4K type programs.

When Simon and Pamela’s daughter turned 3 she entered the local école maternelle, a four day, thirty-six week school for children aged 3 to 6. Participation in l’école maternelle is optional but most parents send their children.

The école maternelle is usually housed in a building purpose-built to be an infant school instead of being located in a handed down elementary school or a church basement since the institution of the école maternelle has been functioning in France since 1881.

There are two interesting comparisons between the French approach to the 4K education and ours.

First, the programs in South Carolina have a variety of providers: school districts, private contractors, and faith based groups and also a variety of supervisors. The SC Department of Education oversees the programs conducted by the school districts while FirstSteps oversees the contractors and faith-based programs. There are also a variety of curriculums: High/Scope, Montessori, Creative Curriculum, and an option for another program.

The design of the program in the école maternelle is much more specific. ”The objective of the école maternelle is to help each child become autonomous and to gain for itself knowledge and competence.” The focus of the knowledge and competence is the acquisition of “oral language, rich, organized, and understandable by others.”

The implementation of the program is up to the individual school, the director and the école’s teachers. And the teachers show the other comparison. Candidates for a teaching position an école maternelle must have the French equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in a specific subject. The candidate then must compete for a seat in university based Institut Universitaire de Formation des Maîtres, leading to the equivalent of a master’s degree in early childhood and elementary education. The teachers have the same wages and benefits as teachers in French elementary and secondary schools, in stark contrast to their Americans cousins who work in early childhood programs where qualifications and pay are low.

In Part 2 we will look at what goes on inside the école maternelle.


Druckerman, Pamela (2012). Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting (New York: Penguin)

Shanny Peer, and Burbank, John (2004). Early Education: Lessons from French Écoles Maternelles. Seattle, Washington.

French Ministry of Education (2014). Guide practique pour parents: Mon Enfant à l’école maternelle.

French Ministry of Education (2014). La présentation des programmes à l’école maternelle

[1]Immediately after her birth, a beanie was put on her head; hence the nickname. Her name is Leyla.

[2] Sort of a spoiler alert: What she found was that you don’t need a different theory of parenting. “You need a very different view of what a child actually is.”