No Country For Old Teachers

No Country For Old Men recently opened a bag full of Oscar nominations, all deserved. Not only is it the most suspenseful movie American cinema has produced in years but Joel & Ethan Coen tightened their movie down without the usual horror soundtrack schlock – loud scratches, loud shrieks, and loud strings – deploying nothing more than this low, resonant murmur.

Their rationale, followed by its application to teaching:

“Suspense thrillers in Hollywood are traditionally done almost entirely with music,” [sound editor Skip Lievsay] said. “The idea here was to remove the safety net that lets the audience feel like they know what’s going to happen. I think it makes the movie much more suspenseful. You’re not guided by the score and so you lose that comfort zone.” [emph. added]

When you remove some scaffolding from your routine, you determine quickly if it was a) essential or b) a low-cost substitution for the essential. I’m noticing this everywhere lately.

  • slide animations (wipes, fly-ins, checkerboards, etc.) are a cheap sub for arresting visuals;
  • classroom rules are a cheap sub for a classroom well-managed;
  • jargon is a cheap sub for authority;
  • profanity is a cheap sub for articulated emotion;
  • sophisticated words are a cheap sub for sophisticated ideas;
  • machismo is a cheap sub for masculinity;
  • “i love you” is a cheap sub for a ride to the airport and a note in the bag;
  • technology used is a cheap sub for technology used well;
  • meaningless assessment is a cheap sub for meaningful assessment;
  • years and units is a cheap sub for a teacher’s worth;
  • supervision is a cheap sub for mentoring (submitted by jethro);
  • group work is a cheap sub for collaboration (submitted by TheInfamousJ);

These cheap substitutes (cansophisticated words and sophisticated ideas (eg.) can coexist. obviously these examples are highly situation-dependent.) lead us to believe we’ve filled a difficult prescription and performed our due diligence when in fact we are nowhere close.

Contributions and exceptions to this list are (as ever) welcome in the comments.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Perhaps “I love you” is a cheap sub for a ride to the airport and a note, but if I took my 31 week pregnant wife to the airport and dropped her there with some amorous wordplay nestled in her carry-on, I’m quite certain I’d find myself in court.

    Someone in this room is married…

  2. Supervision is a cheap sub for mentoring.

    Great post Dan. I just recently learned of your blog, right when “you” went on “vacation”.

    Thanks for some deep thoughts. I shared your discipline plan with some other teachers at my school who are dealing with a troublesome student. I will let you know how it goes.

  3. I really have no comment to make on this post. However, where your ears burning over the weekend? Your name was mentioned a couple of times (at least that I heard) at Chris “Practical Theory” Lehmann’s EduCon 2.0 in Philadelphia. Not only that, it was said in the “of course you know this guy” matter of fact manner. Don’t know if it warrents a congratulations, a tip of the hat, or simply a nod, but keep up the good work. Lots of folk are enjoying your blog.

  4. Not only have I been inspired to finally see the movie, but I really like the idea of creating a list of substitutions–what might be the cheap sub for x? And to help teachers focus on cutting what they don’t need so they *can* get down to the important stuff. Thanks for the great thinking.

  5. Thanks for the link, Tom (just caught it from BoingBoing), and, Tim for the report-back from EduCon.

    Every time I’m tempted towards EduCon, NECC, or some other edublogger meet-up, I can’t help wonder what I’d offer that world or derive from it. We don’t teach the same populations, they and I, neither do we teach the same subject. (Both general observations.) I’m sure I’ll swing by one of these days, just for the creepy fish-out-of-water feeling. Until then, if you feel like recommending some uStream sessions, I’m interested.

  6. Dan,

    We’d love to have you… I don’t think there was a single subject and a single kind of kid taught. We had public, private, urban, suburban and rural. We had New York City and Alabama. That was part of what made it cool..

    I’d take a look at Marcie and Karina’s “Advisory” session because I think you’d enjoy it. I’d look at Matt VK’s Engineering session, because he looks at engineering the way you look at math (and he was a Math teacher for six years.) I’d look at Konrad Glogowski’s session about teaching, because he’s got such a cool perspective. The list goes on…

  7. “classroom rules are a cheap sub for a classroom well-managed”

    I know you’re being simple and general in this list, but I can hardly imagine a well-managed classroom that doesn’t have reasonably well-articulated rules. All guidance I see for newish teachers is that you mustn’t keep your “expectations” a secret from the students. Sometimes expectations are general (“we respect each other”); sometimes they’re specific (“we don’t throw things around”).

    My teaching year (my third) starts tomorrow. My junior classes will be sticking a page of expectations and rules in the front page of their books. The intention is that by having a non-threatening chat about these at the beginning of the year when everyone is listening, we can try to avoid nasty surprises later.

    Anyway, I’d like to see more detail on the above quote. Always a lot to learn…

  8. Chris, I appreciate the screening list. I think I remember you citing Tim Best’s lecture from your Twitter. I’ll throw his in the queue also.

    Gavin, see footnote #1 where even though “x is a cheap sub for y,” x and y can (and often do) co-exist. The problem is when a page of classroom rules and a discussion at the start of the semester are the be-all of classroom management. It lets one off the hook for all the relational stuff that’s ongoing throughout the year and is (imo) much harder.

  9. Technology usually isn’t used well. Usually. It’s almost a crusade of mine.

    In my experience, there is exactly one good PowerPoint in the known universe, one that doesn’t make you feel like you’re being dragged by a horse across granite. It’s the TED lecture by the Creative Commons guy.

    Good visuals, good design, good focus.

    I have a pet theory to the effect that if only people who know and use the elements of design teach the rest of us PowerPoint, that dragged-horse-granite feeling will be a thing of the past.

  10. I’ll second awaitingtenure there but I’ll also throw in that a great deal of instruction is mediocre to poor. Probably far, far more than the majority would like to admit. Even some of the “good teachers” I’ve seen made me want to put out my eye just to add some excitement.

    I’ve got a fairly decent sample size as well. I’ve been a student in 5 states, two countries, 8 schools, and 4 colleges. and a teacher/ITRT/Observer in two states, 14 schools, multiple grades k-10.

    I’m not an expert on education but I can very reliably tell you when I’m bored out of my mind.

    So I guess my point is that if you slap technology on a rotten foundation then you should expect instruction to get worse- just like adding a second floor to a house with a bad foundation. The extra “weight” is just going to accelerate the decline.

    Too bitter? Too cynical? I’m not sure right now.

    In case eyeingtenure hasn’t seen it Identity 2.0 is a little old but well worth watching and is in that Lessig style.

  11. ” … if only people who know and use the elements of design teach the rest of us PowerPoint, that dragged-horse-granite feeling will be a thing of the past.”

    My name is Dan. Have we met?

    P.S. Take it from me. Yer gonna get butchered by these people if you walk around calling “PowerPoint” and “classroom technology” synonymous.

  12. PS. I prefer Identity 2.0 to Lessig. It takes Lessig’s style to its absurd conclusion (a slide for every syllable) which is the only place to take it imo.

  13. I hope you’ll excuse the slip. That’s just a reflection of where I teach.

    PowerPoint and classroom technology aren’t synonymous where I’m a student teacher. At this high school, 5-year-old textbooks and a television set are the peak of classroom technology in most classrooms.

    There are other bits of classroom technology floating around if the teacher buys it.

  14. Benjamin Baxter wrote:

    So sorry to ask, but which TED lecture? Have you a link, by chance? Thanks!


  15. Group Work is a cheap sub for Collaboration

    As a science teacher, I explicitly teach the difference in between group work and collaboration at the beginning of my classes. Then, sometimes I’ll say, “Collaborate.” And to my delighted surprise, they do. “It makes us feel grown up,” one of my students told me.

    Another one, which I don’t know how to describe is when teachers have students/groups come up one-at-a-time to present information to the class. That’s a cheap sub for engaged students (the rest of the class). My solution in my world’s-tiniest-room-ever is to have a gallery walk where everyone is presenting simultaneously. Much more engagement from the “audience” that way. Just make sure there’s one expert for every display in each travel group.