Archive for the 'Science' Category

Shakespeare Follow-Up: The Atom

Friday, December 6th, 2013

In As You Like It, Celia reveals to Rosalind that she knows the name of Rosalind’s secret admirer. It is Orlando, who has already captured her heart. Immediately, Rosalind begins to pepper Celia with an overwhelming litany of questions, which causes Celia to exclaim:

It is as easy to count atomies as to resolve the propositions of a lover

Wait, what? Isn’t this the same play that said that the world is six thousand years old? How could Celia possibly know about atomic theory? Fortunately, there’s no job too small for the Shakespeare Follow-Up.

According to my Folger edition of the play (Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, ed.), the word “atomies” as used here means “dust particles in sunlight.” Oh.


Never mind.

Later in the play, Phebe uses the word, and this is clearly the meaning she intends:

Thou tell’st me there is murder in mine eye:
’Tis pretty, sure, and very probable,
That eyes, that are the frail’st and softest things,
Who shut their coward gates on atomies,
Should be call’d tyrants, butchers, murderers!

So that would appear to be that. But, wait! According to my Arden edition (Juliet Dusinberre, ed.), there’s more to the story. “Atomies” does indeed mean “tiny particles,” but…

The word, which occurs twice in AYL (see 3.5.13) and in no other Shakespeare play, may suggest the territory of the research conducted by Ralegh’s navigator, Thomas Harriot, into the atom and into optics, with particular relation to the refraction of light and the nature of visions.

(We’ll get back to Harriot, but as a side note, you may remember that Mercutio also uses the word “atomies” in the Queen Mab speech. To be fair, I checked my Arden edition of Romeo and Juliet (Brian Gibbons, ed.), and found instead the word “atomi,” which is from Q1. The Folio has “atomies.” So it’s arguable whether the word appears in another play, but the Arden is at least consistent. Even if you say the word is unique to As You Like It, however, the concept does appear in at least one other play.)

Atomism, the theory that all matter is made up of smaller units that cannot be further divided, was an idea embraced by several Pre-Socratic philosophers, most notably Leucippus and Democratus. Aristotle rejected this theory, believing that the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire) were continuous and infinitely divisible. As with most of these kinds of arguments, Aristotle’s version won the day. Although there were some notable figures who did believe in atomism throughout the ages, Aristotle’s theory was still the prevailing concept even in Shakespeare’s day. So in Twelfth Night, Viola gets Olivia’s attention by telling her “you should not rest/ Between the elements of air and earth, But you should pity me!” as Sir Toby asks Sir Andrew “Does not our life consist of the four elements?” when trying to make a point.

However, even in Shakespeare’s early seventeenth century, atomism was making a comeback, boasting such impressive adherents as Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and even Galileo. Thomas Harriot was an early contributor to the developing theory, though at a time when it was still dangerous to speak too openly about what was considered a heretical idea. It’s intriguing to think that the notion may have captured Shakespeare’s imagination as well, but this is merely speculation. I don’t think you can strongly infer this from his use of a particular word twice in a given play, especially when the second use of the word points fairly decisively in the other direction.

In 1808, John Dalton (building on the work of Lavoisier and Proust) demonstrated that when a substance (such as water) is broken down into its components (such as hydrogen and oxygen), the proportion can always be described with small integers, implying that there is a direct correspondence on some foundational level. His atomic theory of matter led to further inquiry and discovery throughout the 19th century. In the early 20th century, quantum mechanics allowed scientists such as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and Nils Bohr to describe the unique properties of particles on the microscopic scale.

There’s a lot more to the story, but it will have to suffice to note that in the mid-20th century, science learned how to split the atom, unleashing the potential for a virtually unlimited power source, weapons of unthinkable destruction, and a series of ethical questions that have turned out to be much more difficult to resolve than even the propositions of a lover.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Circumnavigation

Friday, November 29th, 2013

When, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon sends Puck to fetch the magic flower, he gives him a deadline:

Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.

I don’t know how fast the Leviathan could swim, so let’s talk about whales.

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the fastest whales can reach speeds of up to 40 mph. If you Google “40 miles per hour in leagues per minute” it will convert the speed for you; it’s about 0.193 leagues per minute. So it would take about 5.18 minutes for the world’s fastest whale to swim a league, and I doubt it would take the Leviathan any longer.

Puck’s not ready to promise that. He responds:

I’ll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.

He’s going to need more time than Oberon asked, but to be fair, he’s going to take the long route.

Is it possible to do a complete circumnavigation of the Earth in 40 minutes? Puck’s got some powerful magic behind him, but that seems like a pretty fast journey. The Earth is almost 25,000 miles around. This claim needs a Shakespeare Follow-Up.

The 16th century voyages of Magellan and Drake would have been known to Shakespeare when he wrote the play. But these expeditions took years, and Puck didn’t have that kind of time. Over the next few centuries, many would make the trip, but it was always measured in years.

In 1873, Jules Verne wrote a fantasy novel called Around the World in Eighty Days, which documents a fictional attempt by Phileas Fogg to achieve the title journey in order to win a bet. Fogg travels by railroad and steamship, which gives him an advantage over his purely nautical predecessors. While they have to navigate around landmasses, he gets to travel a more direct route. Also, he’s a fictional character, but so is Puck. In the real world, the current record for sailing around the world belongs to French yachtsman Loïck Peyron. He ended his journey in January 2012 after 45 days, 13 hours, 42 minutes and 53 seconds. His prize? The Jules Verne Trophy.

Impressive as that is, Puck’s not going to make his deadline in a sailboat. What about hitching a ride on the Moon, a naturally orbiting satellite with close ties to the play? Well, as you might guess, the Moon takes about a month (29.5 days) to show its phase to the Earth. That’s faster than Peyron, but not fast enough for our time-pressed friend.

Shakespeare’s England wouldn’t have known any more of modern flight than Puck’s Athens, but we need to cut down our time. In 2010, Riccardo Mortara, Gabriel Mortara, and Flavien Guderzo set the record for a jet airplaine circumnavigation in 57 hours and 54 minutes, beating the Moon by a significant margin but still falling short of our goal. Being a fairy, Puck might have some connections to Santa Claus, who reportedly can make the worldwide journey in a single night. But to really pick up some speed, Puck should look into a spacecraft.

In 1961, Yuri Gagarin completed the first orbit of the Earth in 108 minutes. Now, we’re talking! There have been numerous orbits since that historic trip. I haven’t been able to find the fastest orbit, which is strange since you’d think that would be a big deal. I did find someone on a space message board who claims that Apollo 17 holds the current record at 87.82 minutes. I haven’t been able to find a source confirming that, but I haven’t been able to find a source contradicting it either. So given our current state of technology, the fastest estimate of a non-magical human circumnavigation given by even Internet hearsay is more than twice as long as Puck’s 40-minute promise.

So what happens in the play? After Puck leaves, Demetrius and Helena enter, have a scene together, and exit. Then, Puck returns with the flower. The length of the scene can certainly vary between productions, so to get a reasonable estimate, I consulted the relevant scene in two audio recordings from my collection. In the Arkangel version, Puck departs at 11:40 and returns at 15:40. He is away exactly 4 minutes. In the Naxos version, Puck is even faster. He’s gone from 9:11 to 12:54, for a total of 3 minutes and 43 seconds. We don’t know if he fulfills his ambition to put a girdle round about the earth, but it seems that he does indeed return ere the leviathan can swim a league.

Even a freewheeling sprite like Puck understands the importance of working on the boss’s timetable.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Biochemistry

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

In As You Like It, Le Beau gives some friendly advice to Orlando:

Good sir, I do in friendship counsel you
To leave this place. Albeit you have deserv’d
High commendation, true applause and love,
Yet such is now the duke’s condition
That he misconstrues all that you have done.
The duke is humorous: what he is indeed,
More suits you to conceive than I to speak of.

The duke is humorous? He doesn’t sound very humorous to me. Can we get a Shakespeare Follow-Up?

The “humours” referred to four bodily fluids that were believed to affect one’s mood and personality: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. This was a theory that traced back as far as the ancient Greeks, and it was widely accepted in Shakespeare’s time. An imbalance of any one of these fluids in a person would have a particular effect. So, the duke is moody, not funny. And this use of the word is fairly consistent across the canon. So when Antipholus of Syracuse says he is not in a “sportive humour,” or Benedick says “a college of witcrackers cannot flout me out of my humour,” or Petruchio says “I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humour,” none of them are talking about the funny.

It’s clearly a retrochronism, but understanding a little bit about the humors can actually shed some light on quite a few lines in Shakespeare, so let’s review.

An excess of blood was thought to make you sanguine, and the cheerfully happy word actually comes from the Latin for bloody. So when Sir Toby Belch asks “Am not I consanguineous? am I not of her blood?,” he is using the term to describe a blood relationship.

Phlegm leads to quiet rationality. Kant actually thought it was the absence of temperament. Mistress Quickly therefore misapplies the term in The Merry Wives of Windsor when she beseeches Doctor Caius to “be not so phlegmatic.” She is trying to calm his anger down. She should have said “choleric.”

Choler stems from yellow bile (from the Greek “chole” for bile), and the word appears frequently in Shakespeare to describe anger or bellicosity. The black (”melan-”) variety of bile (”chole”) was also a frequently used theme. I’ve already written about melancholy in Shakespeare in an earlier post, so I don’t need to repeat it all here. The important thing to remember is that Shakespeare and his audience would have believed that these moods were caused by an imbalance of fluids. This is why bloodletting was such a popular medical practice; they believed they could remove the excess humours by drawing blood or applying leeches.

A poetic reference to bloodletting appears in King Richard II, as Richard attempts to sooth the conflict between Bolingbroke and Mowbray:

Wrath-kindled gentlemen, be rul’d by me;
Let’s purge this choler without letting blood:
This we prescribe, though no physician;
Deep malice makes too deep incision:
Forget, forgive; conclude and be agreed,
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.

The complainants are seeking a duel, another way to purge choler by letting blood. Richard reframes their grievances as merely an imbalance of yellow bile, and uses the bloodletting metaphor to advocate a more peaceful solution. (It doesn’t work.)

In the 19th century, humours and bloodletting fell out of fashion as medical science developed a better understanding of human biochemistry. Apparently, though, the idea of the four humors survives today as a popular screenwriting technique.

On a somewhat-unrelated final note, do you know why the “funny bone” got its name? Because it’s the humerus! And I hope you find that humorous.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Nature vs. Nurture

Friday, November 8th, 2013

The term “nature vs. nurture” is a poetic turn of phrase that refers to an ongoing reexamination of the roles that heredity and environment play in determining who we are as individuals. The expression was popularized in the 19th century by Francis Galton, though the debate and the phrase had been around much longer than his day. In fact, Shakespeare himself juxtaposed the two words in The Tempest, as Prospero describes Caliban thusly:

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature
Nurture can never stick;

Shakespeare was not the first to contrast these two words, but Galton is known to have been a Shakespeare fan, and it seems reasonable to imagine this was his source.

Shakespeare’s plays are filled with models of the intricate workings of human nature, depictions of how individuals are influenced by external factors, and the complicated interplay between the two. As we will soon see, Shakespeare was also an early voice in this conversation, and an often-quoted source by later thinkers as well. Therefore, our Shakespeare Follow-Up will focus on the development of the nature vs. nurture debate from Shakespeare’s time to ours today.

But please note that this is a very large topic, and I’m going to sweep through it rather quickly, so feel free to do your own follow up on any topic here that interests you.

Political philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau are often grouped together as “social contract theorists,” because they presented ideas about how and why humans form societies. But when considering their impact on the nature/nurture question, it’s more illustrative to focus on their differences.

In Leviathan (1651), Thomas Hobbes argued that human beings, existing in a state of nature, are savage and brutal. Therefore, we willingly surrender our autonomy to a sovereign unconditionally in order to gain security from our murderous brethren. John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), lays out the idea that we refer to today as tabula rasa, or “the blank slate.” Rather than seeing human beings as being innately evil, as Hobbes does, he sees us as being neither good nor evil naturally, but rather open to influence from our environments. Jean-Jacques Rousseau presents a different view of the natural state of the human in his book Émile (1762). For Rousseau, humans are born innately good, and it is society that corrupts.

Naturally, the choice of which of these three views to adopt will have a profound effect on how a culture views education and child rearing. We can’t control the nature, but we can structure the nurture to make the best use of our understanding of it. If we believe that human beings are born evil, we’ll want to make discipline the backbone of our educational system. If we believe that children are blank slates, we’ll seek to fill those slates with our best models for citizenship and morality. If we believe that our students are innately good, then maybe the best thing we could do would be to just get out of the way and let them explore the world they find themselves in. You can hear echoes of these debates in today’s conversations about education.

In the post-Darwinian era, psychologists began to codify the progression of human development into various stages. The progression was determined by nature, but profoundly impacted by environment. Sigmund Freud described five psycho-sexual stages of development in childhood. The eight psycho-social stages outlined by Erik Erikson were strongly influenced by Freud, but extended to adulthood.

But wait! A lifetime of human progression divided into stages? Why does that sound familiar? Oh right…

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe, and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

It seems that Jacques in As You Like It was on the right track, centuries ahead of his time. Freud famously wrote about Hamlet, and Erikson even cites Shakespeare’s “ages of man” in his 1962 article “Youth: Fidelity and Diversity,” which also provides an in-depth discussion of Hamlet.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) developed a set of four stages of cognitive development that have been profoundly influential in our understanding of human nature. Piaget believed that these stages developed naturally, and that new levels of learning become possible at each stage. Score one point for nature! Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) built on these ideas, but demonstrated that learning could actually encourage cognitive development. There is a zone between what students are capable of doing on their own and what they can do in an environment that includes guidance and collaboration. Stretching into this zone can assist children in progressing developmentally. There’s one point for nurture, and it’s a tie game.

In fact, it will always be a tie game. Everyone agrees that both nature and nurture are significant, and we can argue about various degrees. Noam Chomsky (1928 – ) revolutionized the field of linguistics by describing, in Syntactic Structures (1957), the innate ability of the human brain to acquire language. This was a challenge to the behaviorist philosophy that was dominant at the time. In Frames of Mind (1983), Howard Gardner describes a system of multiple intelligences that different people seem to possess in different measures. The rise of theories such as Chomsky’s and Gardner’s would seem to move the needle towards nature, but the fact that they continue to influence our educational practices demonstrate the importance of nurture in the equation all the more powerfully.

Shakespeare, of course, didn’t know any of this. Nevertheless, his understanding of the complex interplay between nature and nurture was nuanced enough for him to create models that still have us debating the actions and motivations of fictional characters as though they were real people. Why, for example, does Macbeth kill Duncan? Is it because he’s ambitious? Or does he succumb to pressure from his wife? If it’s the former, would he have done so without prompting from the witches? And if it’s the latter, what elements of his nature make him susceptible to his wife’s influence?

I give up. What do you think, Lady Macbeth?

Glamis thou art, and Cawdor; and shalt be
What thou art promis’d. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way; thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it; what thou wouldst highly,
That thou wouldst holily; wouldst not play false,
And yet wouldst wrongly win; thou’dst have, great Glamis,
That which cries, ‘Thus thou must do, if thou have it;’
And that which rather thou dost fear to do
Than wishest should be undone. Hie thee hither,
That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,
And chastise with the valour of my tongue
All that impedes thee from the golden round,
Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem
To have thee crown’d withal.

A lot of these Follow-Ups are about how much Shakespeare didn’t know. This one is about how much he still has to teach us.

Shakespeare Anagram: As You Like It

Saturday, October 12th, 2013

One hidden benefit of the Shakespeare Follow-Up is that it can give me extra ideas for the Shakespeare Anagram!

From As You Like It:

The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love-cause.

Shift around the letters, and it becomes:

Science winnows latent old isotope radiation dates and helps to show us our vivid earth is held many more years old than six millennia.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Age of the Earth

Friday, October 11th, 2013

When, in As You Like It, Orlando threatens to die of unrequited love, the disguised Rosalind has some words of wisdom for him:

The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love-cause.

Whether or not one could actually die from love will be beyond the scope of this Shakespeare Follow-Up. But we do want to examine how close is Rosalind’s estimate of the age of the planet to what we believe today.

Almost 6,000 years was a good guess for Shakespeare’s day. But today, scientists believe the Earth is over 4,500,000,000 years old, give or take. How can we account for such a breathtaking discrepancy?

Early estimates for the age of the planet were based on Biblical scripture. God created Earth “in the beginning” which puts its origin on the first day of creation. Adam was born on the 5th day, and then the begetting began. Genesis actually goes into quite a bit of detail about how old each begetter was when he begat, so a literal interpretation and little bit of arithmetic was all that was necessary to trace how much time passed since the first day of creation and pinpoint the age of the earth.

Dating creation at 4000 BC was a popular estimate during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Shortly after Shakespeare’s death, Bishop James Ussher published a chronology that placed the creation of the universe on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. Hey, someone has a birthday coming up!


But how many candles?

Still, nature was rife with clues that were ready for us when we were ready for them. As early as the 17th century, Nicolas Steno noticed the questions raised by fossil evidence and rock stratification, and other naturalist scientists would find reason to revise the Earth’s age gradually upwards.

In 1862, Lord Kelvin (before he was Lord Kelvin) used the cooling rate of the Earth to place its age at around 98 million years. That’s not quite there yet, but Lord Kelvin was getting warmer!

In the 20th century, scientists began measuring the decay of radioactive isotopes for dating objects that are very old. This is called “radiometric dating” or “radioactive dating,” but I’m only going to call it radiometric dating because I already have something that I call radioactive dating. Radiometric dating puts a rock native to Quebec, the Acasta Gneiss, at over 4 billion years old, and certain zircons found in Western Australia turn out to be over 4.4 billion years old. Based on non-terrestrial evidence, scientists put the age of the solar system at around 4.567 billion years, meaning the Earth can’t be any older than that. This gives us a window between 4.4 and 4.567 billion years to place our best guess.

Although science is long past the time of an Earth whose age could be measured in the thousands, the general public is not as unified. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 46% of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” Now, there is a difference between the age of the Earth and the age of the human being, but there is a lot of scientific evidence that humans have been around a lot longer than 10,000 years. Suffice it to say that the first homo sapiens are believed to have evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago.

But whether, in all this time, there was any man who died in a love-cause, I leave as a question for the reader.

Shakespeare Follow-Up: Cosmology

Friday, October 4th, 2013

The inaugural Shakespeare Follow-Up is dedicated to Rebecca.

As she can tell you, when Puck is first introduced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he meets a fairy who tells him:

I do wander every where,
Swifter than the moone’s sphere;

But what is the moon’s “sphere” and why should we believe it is particularly swift? To fully appreciate this line, and many like it across the canon, it’s important to know a little bit about how Shakespeare and his contemporaries viewed the cosmos.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle described a system of concentric spheres, based on the works of pre-Socratic philosphers. Each observable planetary body, including the Moon, was embedded in one of these spheres. The spheres were made of transparent matter, in contact with one another, and able to rotate independently. (Positing a thin layer of WD-40 between spheres would have been beyond the technological capabilities of the ancient Greeks.) The Moon’s sphere was the closest to the Earth, and therefore, could move the fastest. This was followed by Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the sphere of the stars. Outside the spheres was the Prime Mover, which is the original source of all motion. God, if you like.

Claudius Ptolemy was an astronomer living in Alexandria in the 2nd century AD, while Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. Ptolemy noticed that some of the data, particularly retrograde motions of the planets, could not be explained by the existing model. He added the idea of epicycles, spheres rotating within spheres, which allowed for irregular movement of the planets, and the concept remained the dominant cosmological model for centuries.

Around the 12th century, Aristotelian concepts (including Ptolemaic cosmology) became intertwined with Christian theology. By the time Copernicus developed his heliocentric model in the early 16th century, it was not only a challenge to Aristotle and Ptolemy, but also to Church teachings that God put man in the center of the universe.

This is the world that Shakespeare and Galileo were born into in 1564. The theories of Copernicus were known, but not commonly accepted as true. It should be noted, however, that even Copernicus accepted the idea of celestial spheres; he just put the Sun in the center instead of the Earth. Shakespeare makes reference to the spheres all throughout his plays, often metonymously for the cosmos as it affects our fates, or simply as a shared cultural reference.

So the Bastard in King John can ask “Now, now, you stars, that move in your right spheres,/ Where be your powers?” as Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream observes “Yet you, the murderer, look as bright, as clear,/ As yonder Venus in her glimmering sphere.”

Fixed and unchangeable, the spheres also serve as a convenient metaphor for the rightfulness of hierarchies here on Earth. Shakespeare draws this comparison often, most notably in this speech from Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order:
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthron’d and spher’d
Amidst the other; whose med’cinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check, to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth.
Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure!

When we see the Sun referred to as “the glorious planet Sol,” it has the power to remind us just how much distance is between the scientific understanding of Shakespeare’s time and our own. And reading this in 21st century America, we also feel the gap in worldview as we see hierarchic culture defended so fiercely. Both celestial spheres and geocentrism will likewise fade in the century following Shakespeare’s death, but the ideas remain forever embedded in Shakespeare like the planets in their spheres. Thus, we understand that when, in 1 Henry IV, Hal tells Hotspur that “Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,” it’s Elizabethan for “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”

Astronomers during Shakespeare’s lifetime, most notably Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, already began using observational data to cast doubts about both geocentrism and the celestial spheres. The observation of comets was making the sphere model difficult to maintain. Galileo also took up the idea of heliocentrism and, after a long battle with the Church, was pressured into recanting. But the theories of Isaac Newton and the Scientific Revolution later in the 17th century gave heliocentrism a much stronger grounding in modern science which led to a wider acceptance as the culture became more open to the reexamination of our scientific understandings.

It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that science learned that none of these models was the center of the universe, but rather one solar system among billons across a vast sprawling cosmos.

One can only wonder what Shakespeare might have done with such a revelation.

Don’t Be Rotten to the Core

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

I thought I’d take this opportunity, while the federal government is shut down over the question of its own power to legislate, to talk about another somewhat controversial initiative, namely the Common Core State Standards.

It should be noted that this is not a simple left-right issue. At a recent conference, I heard Kim Marshall joke that he never thought he’d see national standards because “the right doesn’t like national, and the left doesn’t like standards.” So, as you might expect, the Common Core seems to be embraced by moderates in both parties, while being attacked by extremists on both sides. Teachers and parents, who are the most directly affected by the changes, express the same range of opinions as policymakers and pundits. So, the discussion continues.

To get a sense of the issues involved, as well as the general tone, check out this New York Times editorial by Bill Keller, and this response by Susan Ohanian.

For the record, I agree with the Bill Keller editorial (you can just change that “K” into an “H” and we’re good). I’m a fan of the Common Core, though I have a number of concerns about the way it’s being implemented. But I respect the opinions of many who oppose it, and understand the quite valid reasons why they do. Unfortunately, most of the rhetoric that I encounter against the initiative is either focused on areas that have very little to do with the standards themselves, or are based in a fog of misinformation.

Now, if you’ve read the standards, and you honestly believe that we should not want our students to be able to cite evidence from informational texts to support an argument, I’m very willing to have that conversation. If you think the Common Core shifts aren’t the right direction for our students, I’m very willing to have that conversation. If you have a problem with emphasizing literacy in the content areas, I’m very willing to have that conversation. That’s just not the conversation I’ve been hearing about the Common Core, and if we’re going to discuss these very large-scale changes in the way they deserve to be discussed, we need to clear the air of distractions and distortions.

With that in mind, I present the Top Ten Most Common Objections to the Common Core, and my responses to them. This is meant to be the beginning of a conversation and not the last word, so please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section below.

1. The Common Core is too rigorous. The standards are not developmentally appropriate.

I think we’re feeling that now because we’re transitioning into these standards from a less rigorous system. If students come in on grade level, what they’re being asked to learn in each year is very reasonable. The problem is that we’re so far from that “if,” that the standards can often seem very unreasonable. Add to that a rushed implementation, complete with career-destroying and school-closing accountability, and the Common Core expectations can leave a very bad taste in our mouths.

What’s more, the Common Core includes qualitative shifts as well as quantitative shifts, so students will be as unfamiliar with the new ways of learning as their teachers are. The good news is that each year we implement the Common Core, students will become more used to Common Core ideas such as text-based answers and standards of mathematical practice, and will be better prepared for the work of their grade each year. It will likely get worse before it gets better, but I do think there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it will at least become visible in the next year or two.

2. The Common Core is not rigorous enough. My state had better standards before.

Well, the standards are meant to represent only the minimum of where students need to be in their grade level in order to be on track for college and career readiness by the end of Grade 12. So if you can meet these standards and then exceed them, more power to you. States that adopt the Common Core are also free to change up to 15%, and to add additional standards as well.

So here in New York State, we added Pre-K standards that aren’t in the national version, we put in additional standards throughout the documents (including Responding to Literature standards in ELA and teaching money in early-grade math classrooms), and we still retain the state-wide content standards in social studies and science that students need to pass their Regents. And even where states are slacking, a high-performing school won’t suddenly lower their standards just because they can. That’s not how they became high-performing schools in the first place.

3. The Common Core is a mandated top-down program that infringes on state control of schools.

The Common Core is not mandated by the federal government. States can choose to adopt the Common Core or opt out. I hesitate to present the most blindingly obvious of proofs, but here we go: not all of the states adopted the standards. Some states chose to opt out. That should suffice as proof enough that states can choose to opt out if they want to.

Did the federal government sweeten the deal by adding Race to the Top incentives for states that adopted the Common Core? Yes. But that’s bribery, not coersion. You can say no to a bribe, even if you need the money. And this wasn’t even that much of a bribe, as everyone knew there were only going to be a limited number of states that won Race to the Top funding and Common Core adoption was far from a guarantee.

Whether you love or hate the Common Core, it was your state legislature that adopted the standards, and the credit or blame should be placed there. States are just as capable of having cynical self-serving politicians as the federal government is, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But some states may have genuinely adopted the Common Core to improve education for their students, even if you don’t think it will.

Frankly, I’m no more a fan of Race to the Top than I was of No Child Left Behind. I don’t think states should have to compete for education funding. And there were other incentives in the Race to the Top formula I had issues with, like the charter school expansions. But these are criticisms of federal education policy, and not the Common Core standards themselves.

4. The Common Core is a result of the corporate reform movement that’s undermining public education.

Maybe.

I don’t think the standards do undermine public education, though, and I believe the people who actually put them together are earnest in their attempts to improve it. I’m not blind to some of the strange bedfellows involved with the process, but if an idea leads to good things, I don’t care where it comes from. This is an argument that just doesn’t work on its own. Just because Bill Gates funded it, it isn’t necessarily Windows 7. Zing!

5. The Common Core is only about testing and accountability.

I hate to break it to you, but the testing and accountability movement has been around a lot longer than the Common Core. We’re already teaching to the test, so it makes sense to design a better test, one worth teaching to. You can read about early attempts to align New York’s state-wide exams to the Common Core in this article, and I’m quoted towards the end, but the bottom line is that they didn’t go very well.

Two multi-state consortiums are now hard at work to build a better test, though this turns out to be a tougher job than they originally thought. They are talking about having students take the state-wide (actually, consortium-wide) tests on computers, which means that every school needs to have computers. That could be a logistical nightmare in itself, but it could also mean more funding for computers in schools.

In New York City, teachers are being evaluated through a system that uses test scores, in one form or another, as 40% of a teacher’s score, while the other 60% will be based on the Danielson Framework. In my opinion, that’s a vast improvement over using test scores alone, which even the Gates-funded MET study doesn’t endorse.

6. The Common Core is a conspiracy to keep the poor uneducated.

No, that’s what we have now. There is a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and academic achievement. Having a set of common standards is one step in the process of attempting to close that gap.

7. The Common Core replaces literature with government manuals.

That simply isn’t true. There is an entire section of the standards that covers Reading Literature. There may be a government manual listed somewhere in the examples of informational texts, but it’s disingenuous to hold that up as the centerpiece of Common Core expectations for student reading. Anyone who makes this argument is either unfamiliar with the standards, or uninterested in engaging in a serious discussion about them.

8. People are making money from the Common Core!

This is true, in as much as we need people to write tests, publish classroom materials, and train teachers. But we would have needed this anyway, Common Core or no.

Liberals tend to think that everyone should do their jobs with the purest of motives, and if someone’s profiting from something, it must be an evil conspiracy. Conservatives tend to believe the opposite: that if you made money from an idea, then that proves the idea had market value, and those who improve the system deserve to profit from their innovations. I take a more neutral view of profit’s correlation with good in the world. I work in teacher training, and the Common Core affects what I teach, but not how often I teach or how much money I make. I have no financial interest in defending the Common Core.

Keller’s editorial estimates the costs of the new tests at about $29 per student, in a system that spends over $9,000 per student in a year. You might not like the Common Core for other reasons, but cost alone can’t be the only reason to oppose it.

9. These Common Core-aligned materials I have are bad.

I don’t doubt it. But just because a product claims to be “Common Core-aligned,” it doesn’t mean that it is Common Core-endorsed. I have no end of problems with the range of “Common Core-aligned” curricula being rolled out by New York City alone. This is not a function of poor standards, but rather poor implementation.

By the way, a lot of the Common Core-aligned materials were delayed getting into schools this year, even as teachers were required to start using them. You don’t have to convince me that we’re having implementation problems.

And I spent last summer modifying my own organization’s social studies curricula to be Common Core-aligned, and I feel strongly that our products improved immensely because of it.

10. The Common Core is untested, and shouldn’t be implemented on such a large scale without a pilot program.

This is from Reign of Error author Diane Ravitch, and she makes a fair point. But nothing’s written in stone. The standards will work in some ways and need mending in others. And where they need mending, we’ll mend them. Ten years from now, we may come to see the current version of the Common Core as a really good first draft. Or we may remember it as New Coke. There’s no way to know until we try it out. That can be used as an argument for it as well as against it.

I do think that we should do everything we can do to make it work. That’s the only way we’ll really know if it doesn’t.

Honorable Mention: President Obama is for it, and therefore I must be against it.

Hey, look! Someone over there is getting health care.

I really do see a lot of parallel between the Affordable Care Act debacle and the Common Core controversy. Tea party Republicans want to talk about how Obamacare will destroy the economy and force the government between you and your doctor and lead to the apocalypse, but they really oppose it on ideological principles. If they would talk about their principles, we could have an honest debate, but they know these principles sound cold and selfish, so they obfuscate. Common Core opponents dance around the actual changes being made in education because most of them make sense. The real concern, as I see it, is the danger of the larger corporate-funded movement to use testing and data to prove the ineffectiveness of public education in order to move to a privatized free-market system.

That’s a concern worth discussing directly, and I’m very willing to have that conversation.

Shakespeare Follow-Up

Friday, September 27th, 2013

I am pleased to announce a new regular feature to the blog: the Shakespeare Follow-Up!

Shakespeare lived and wrote during a time we call the Early Modern Period. And yet, there is much about his time that doesn’t seem very modern at all. It’s common for students to mistakenly refer to Shakespeare’s language as “Old English” because it seems so far removed from the way we speak today. But once you get past the vocabulary and sentence structure, you realize that the language is just the tip of an iceberg representing a 400-year-old gap of knowledge, culture, and worldview.

Shakespeare was born in the same year as Galileo, but pre-deceased him by over 25 years, well before the Italian’s famous grapple with Pope Urban over the question of heliocentrism. Dying as he did in 1616, Shakespeare just barely missed the beginnings of what we consider to be modern science. Bacon’s Novum Organum, published in 1620, contained the early stirrings of the scientific method. And as the Scientific Revolution started picking up some serious steam later in the 17th century, the ideas of the world Shakespeare inhabited were already starting to seem antiquated.

A lot can happen in 400 years. Empires rise and fall, as historians rethink their judgements. Breakthroughs are made. Values shift. We still love Shakespeare because he tapped into the universal truth of human existence, sure, but that doesn’t mean we understand him fully, nor he us. Shylock’s conversion, Dromio’s beating, Katherine’s taming… they can seem harsh to us, living in a different culture and a different time. New discoveries, like the recent unearthing of the remains of Richard III, give us insight on historic people and events that Shakespeare never would have had. Just because Shakespeare’s always on our main stage, doesn’t mean we’re always on the same page.

And thus is born the Shakespeare Follow-Up. Each week (or whenever the mood strikes me), I’ll identify a passage from Shakespeare that highlights a particular gap between Shakespeare’s time and our own. Perhaps it’s a scientific statement of fact, believed to be true in Shakespeare’s time, but ridiculously outdated in ours. Maybe it’s an idea that wasn’t accepted in Shakespeare’s time, but it turned out to be remarkably prophetic. Or maybe it’s an instance where Shakespeare shows us that something we think of as wholly modern has been around longer than we think. I’ll quote the passage, and then provide a “Follow-Up” of where we are today.

This feature will probably end up to be more about cultural, historical, and scientific shifts than it is about Shakespeare. But this blog has always been approached with the philosophy that a love of Shakespeare is only the beginning of a life of examination and discovery. This feature will be another step in that journey. And I think understanding the gaps between us and Shakespeare helps us understand his works better as well. Hamlet tells Horatio that there “are more things in heaven and earth” than are dreamt of in his philosophy. And so, let it be with Shakespeare.

Sound like fun? The Shakespeare Follow-Up will appear on Fridays.

In the Zone

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

As we begin implementing the Common Core State Standards this year, many of the schools I advise are having very similar problems with grade-level readiness. This isn’t a new problem, to be sure, but it has become intensified by Common Core expectations. The Common Core standards are more rigorous than last year’s New York State standards, so even students who were on grade level last year have some catching up to do. Also, built into the DNA of the Common Core is the idea of a “staircase of complexity” in which students must master the standards of the prior year before they are ready for the standards of the current year. In other words, they must master the 5th-grade standards in order to become 6th-grade ready.

For example, students in Kindergarten learn to state an opinion (”My favorite book is…”). In Grade 1, they provide a reason for their opinion. In Grade 4, they support their reasons with information, while in Grade 6 they write arguments to support claims with reasons and evidence. In math, students are expected to be effortlessly fluent in addition and subtraction by the end of Grade 2, so they will be ready to begin fractions in Grade 3. By the end of Grade 5, their understanding of fractions is thorough enough to begin algebra in the 6th grade. It’s a well-structured progression that brings students step-by-step from Kindergarten to college and career readiness by providing incremental support based on the learning that has accrued through the previous years of instruction in every grade.

What happens, then, during the first year of implementation? Our students aren’t even coming in on grade level based on the old standards, let alone the more rigorous standards demanded by (and required for) the Common Core. Our 6th graders aren’t coming in having mastered fractions or the opinion essay. Their reading levels do not prepare them to approach the complex texts in the new reading band levels, which themselves are set higher than previous levels by the Common Core (as can be seen in the chart at the bottom of page 8 of the ELA Appendix A):

(Click for a larger image.)

And this problem is even more profound in high school, where the high-stakes Regents Exams are looming, and many students aren’t even prepared to read the instructions.

In a December 2011 keynote titled “What Must Be Done in the Next Two Years” (you can download the transcript here), David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core Standards, addresses the idea of grade-level readiness. He’s a brilliant man who speaks with a persuasive confidence, but he’s on the wrong side of this particular issue.

But for your sakes, the really exciting thing is for the first time there’s a measure in the standards that insists that students at each level are encountering texts of adequate complexity.

Nonetheless, you could nonetheless be defeated, because the most popular instructional practice for students who are behind is to replace their core reading with leveled text at their level, right? So if you were to actually look at what your kids are being given, they are constantly matched in this seeming noble idea that you should match everything they read to where they are today, often called a proximal zone of development, et cetera.

Let me be rather clear. Leveled readers and reading at your own level has a crucial role to play for kids in terms of their vocabulary growth, their love of reading, and has a very important role, so I’m not saying kind of just get rid of it. But what I am saying is the core of instruction, if we want kids to catch up, has to be the deliberate study of sufficiently complex texts, again and – we cannot exclude students from that and expect them to magically catch up. That’s a scaffolded environment, do you get me? Where their frustration – they are expected to be frustrated. That frustration is managed. It’s part of the classroom community, and they engage repeatedly in dealing with things that are more difficult than they can handle.

First of all, it’s the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), not the “proximal zone of development, et cetera.” I’m less bothered by his mixing the words around than I am by the “et cetera,” as if to say “yeah, there was more but I couldn’t be bothered to absorb it.” The ZPD is the range between what a child can do independently and what that same child can do with support. The concept was first described by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the 1930’s, and has had a profound impact on developmental psychology and learning science. You can’t be dismissive of the ZPD in one breath, and then go on to recommend scaffolding in the next. The very idea of scaffolding is based on a Vygostkian model of development. The term was introduced by American psychologist Jerome Bruner, and it refers to the supports that we provide students within their ZPD to help them achieve at higher levels. As the metaphor suggests, once students can do these tasks independently, we can remove the scaffolding.

Coleman’s right that there should be managed frustration. If students read texts that are too easy for them, they may enjoy those texts, but it’s not the best way to support reading progress. When students have to read within their ZPD, they feel a frustration we might accurately describe as growing pains. They experience a stretch, and in that stretch, learning can actually help drive cognitive development. If, on the other hand, the material is above the upper limit of their ZPD, they will not experience that productive frustration. They will simply shut down and not attempt to read the material at all. And there is no amount of scaffolding that will make it possible. Think of a weight you can lift easily, a weight that requires some effort to lift, and a weight you can’t budge at all. Which of those three weights would you choose if you wanted to promote muscle growth?

So if you have students who are one or two grades below grade level, it might be worth trying to push them in the way Coleman describes. But students who are four, five, six years below their grade level, aren’t going to be reading on grade level by the end of the year no matter whose philosophical outlook you subscribe to. Nobody is expecting them to “magically catch up.” The idea is to support them in making the greatest progress possible. It is Coleman who is invoking magic when he expects that these students will be able to catch up simply through teacher patience, student frustration, and intense scaffolding.

But if anybody should be a proponent of Vygotsky, it’s David Coleman himself, for Vygotsky provides a clear developmental framework for the Common Core. If learning really can drive development, and I believe it can, then having a rigorous set of standards defined for each grade level organized into a staircase of complexity makes a lot of sense. If we adhere to these standards from Kindergarten, making sure that students receive support in a multi-tiered Response to Intervention system to ensure that they remain on grade level at the end of each year, then the Common Core might actually be a blueprint for making sure that our students are well prepared for the rigors of college and the workplace by the end of Grade 12. Wouldn’t it be a shame if that were all true and the Common Core really is a better way of doing business, but nobody ever knew it because the implementation was so badly botched?

So what can we do? If I were in charge of implementation, I would have had two years of bridge standards before fully adopting the Common Core. If the 5th grade NYS standards say ABC and the 8th grade Common Core standards say JKL, then we develop a logical DEF for 6th grade and a 7th-grade GHI that allow us to incrementally meet the higher standards. Instead, we’re going right from 5th-grade NYS to 6th-grade Common Core, and even students that were on grade level last year are being left behind. The folks at the New York City Department of Education, for their part, seem to understand the difficulties involved, and are trying to make the changes as gradually as possible to support teachers. But no such support is available for students, as the level of rigor expected for them is coming from Albany, and is out of the city’s hands.

I can’t tell you what the statewide assessments are going to look like at the end of this year, but I’m pretty sure the students are going to be expected to read on what is now considered grade level, and this is the problem. What do you do if you have 8th-grade students reading on a 4th-grade level, when you know you are going to be accountable for them passing an 8th-grade test at the end of the year? One option is, as Coleman describes, to give them 8th-grade reading selections anyway, have them read fewer overall texts, and heavily scaffold the texts being read. Another option is to try to give them two years of instruction in a year, committing to bring them from a 4th-grade level to 6th-grade level. Neither strategy will prepare them to read on the 8th-grade level by test time, but I prefer the latter method. It’s better to make meaningful progress in the time that you have than to squander the opportunity by fumbling around with inappropriately difficult texts. I understand, respect, and even admire Coleman’s desire to get everyone on grade level. It’s not going to happen this year.

Given that some of the quantitative targets may not be possible this year, another option is to focus on the qualitative shifts. Give students more exposure to informational texts. Give them more complex texts than they are reading now. Have them read more independently, and give them opportunities to cite evidence from the things they read to support their writing. These are all Common Core-aligned shifts, and can be implemented right away, regardless of student reading levels.

Finally, teachers can make a big difference by differentiating instruction. Some students may have higher upper bounds in their ZPD than might be apparent at first. And if you’ve agreed with me up until now, follow me the rest of the way. It’s important for teachers to challenge their students to the highest extent as is possible for them. Students will push back, but being a teacher means to encourage students to do more than they ever thought they could. Now is the time to do that. Please don’t mistake my nuanced understanding of cognitive development for timidity. I’ve taught Shakespeare, in the original language, to low-performing 5th graders. But to do that, I had to have some confidence that my learning goals were within their Zone of Proximal Development. And when they were, it turned out that it was possible!

As for the end-of-the-year tests, the whole state is in the same bind, so relative success is still very much in reach given the right strategies. Students feel growing pains, and so do teachers. But that pain just means that we’re working outside of our comfort zone, and are instead in a zone that is more conducive to growth.