I’ve been listening to spoken word programming since I was a kid. Some of my best memories of me going to middle school were listening to Howard Stern on the radio. Say what you will about the King of all Media, but the man knows how to interview.
As I’ve grown into an adult, my palette has expanded beyond morning radio shows to the wide world of podcasts. I plan on writing a more comprehensive blog post about my favorite podcasts later, but for now I want to focus on three podcast episodes that have changed the way I think about a topic near to my heart: education.
1. A better way of teaching history: Don’t start with time periods, start with student interests.
Common Sense with Dan Carlin episode 281: “Controlling the Past“
Dan Carlin’s podcast Common Sense went under the radar for way too many years. In this podcast, Carlin speaks about political and cultural dynamics with an eye toward history. He has a much more popular series called Hardcore History where he does a great job of bringing historical periods to life, but I prefer Common Sense.
In this episode, Dan speaks about the political and ideological culture wars around the teaching of history in K-12 education. Up until this point, I never considered a different way of teaching history beyond chronologically working your way through different periods of time. He argues that a more engaging alternative would be to start with a subject that students are already interested in and teach them how to learn about the history of that subject. If a student is interested in fashion, for example, he can learn about the history of fashion.
This entire episode is an amazing deep dive into the nuances of teaching history in American elementary and secondary education, which doesn’t get nearly enough attention.
2. Exposing students from low-income communities to wealthier contexts isn’t enough to bridge the gap between where they are and where they could be.
This American Life episode 550: “Three Miles“
This American Life is the standard bearer for consistent high-quality podcasts. It was one of the first podcasts that I really got into and continues to evolve over time.
The episode “Three Miles” stands out as one of my favorite education-focused episodes because of two reasons. First, it confronted a truism about education reform that I hadn’t seen challenged before: if you expose poor black and brown students to worlds they don’t know exist, isn’t that a valuable part of helping them see themselves as able to go from where they are to this other context? Their conclusion was inconclusive, as the reality likely is, but tends to suggest that it isn’t. Sometimes exposure can do harm if students see what other realities are like, are able to get there, but aren’t equipped to be successful there.
Second, the episode was really sad. It wasn’t just sad because it covered the lives of people who have had unfortunate things happen in their lives, but doesn’t leave you with a great sense of hope. This isn’t a reason not to listen to this episode, The Wire left me with similar feelings and I recommend that as well, but it’s a different conclusion than most of their stories.
3. When institutions of higher education choose to spend their marginal dollars on superficial improvements instead of scholarships for academically advanced economically disadvantaged students, they are in the wrong.
Revisionist History episode 5: “Food Fight“
Malcolm Gladwell started this new podcast this year and I’m completely in love. His written work has been wildly popular but marginalizing it in academic circles is quite en vogue. He dedicated his fourth, fifth, and sixth episodes to education (thumbs up emoji).
In this episode, Gladwell makes the argument that Bowdoin College’s decision to focus on super high-quality food instead of on scholarships for, what he calls, “poor smart kids,” is a morally worse choice. Beyond his conclusion, I found this podcast episode to be impactful because of how decisive Gladwell is about his conclusion. He doesn’t just present the facts and let you come to a conclusion, he ends the episode by saying that you should not go to Bowdoin (or schools like it) and you should go to Vassar (or schools like it) because of the choices they are making with their money.
I’m sure he has caught a lot of heat for being so blunt about what he thinks, but I am energized by it. Even if I didn’t agree with what he said (I do), I appreciate him being so clear about what he thinks and not being afraid to offend people in the process.