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Theory is practical

April 26, 2008 3 comments

“Education would be much more effective if its purpose was to ensure that by the time they leave school every boy and girl should know how much they do not know, and be imbued with a lifelong desire to know it.”

- Sir William Haley

I’ve always been interested in math education for the main reason that mine worked out so badly.  As a dyslexic child, I had a difficult time reading numbers (still do) and the first six grades seemed to consist almost exclusively of memorizing tables.  Until that was done, no logic! no problem solving for you!  But since it was almost impossible for me to memorize tables, I grew up believing I was “bad at math”. 

Fast-forward a number of decades.

DOF co-author Lucas, who has some serious math chops, told me he’d rather kids spend a lot of class time understanding one problem very deeply than ploughing through a whole page of the same kind of problems.  And yeah, that sounds right.  He translated that to science with ‘more time on theory than lab work’ and, hmm… I wasn’t sure about that.  Lab work is important, I thought.  Wouldn’t you get theory from lab work?  Well not necessarily…

Along comes this report on ScienceDaily, Concrete examples don’t help students learn math, study finds.  Professors at Ohio State put it to the test and found out, maybe we should be going from theoretical to specific:

A new study challenges the common practice in many classrooms of teaching mathematical concepts by using “real-world,” concrete examples. Researchers led by Jennifer Kaminski, researcher scientist at Ohio State University’s Center for Cognitive Science, found that college students who learned a mathematical concept with concrete examples couldn’t apply that knowledge to new situations. But when students first learned the concept with abstract symbols, they were much more likely to transfer that knowledge, according to the study published in the April 25 issue of the journal Science.

“These findings cast doubt on a long-standing belief in education,” said Vladimir Sloutsky, co-author of the study and professor of psychology and human development and the director of the Center for Cognitive Science at Ohio State. “The belief in using concrete examples is very deeply ingrained, and hasn’t been questioned or tested.”

The words; “hasn’t been questioned or tested” make for low-hanging study fruit.  Common sense often knows a lot of things that ain’t so:

For example, there is the classic problem of two trains that leave different cities heading toward each other at different speeds. Students are asked to figure out when the two trains will meet.

“The danger with teaching using this example is that many students only learn how to solve the problem with the trains,” Kaminski said. “If students are later given a problem using the same mathematical principles, but about rising water levels instead of trains, that knowledge just doesn’t seem to transfer,” she said.

“It is very difficult to extract mathematical principles from story problems,” Sloutsky added. “Story problems could be an incredible instrument for testing what was learned. But they are bad instruments for teaching.”

“That knowledge just doesn’t seem to transfer.”  This lines up with my experience in technical support.  The most challenging client is the one with a yellow legal pad next to their keyboard.  They ask how to do something; I already know they are NOT interested in the theory behind it.  They want an exact formula – “Click here, then click there, type these words in, press enter…”  They’ll write down every step word for word.  But they can’t transfer that ‘knowledge’ to new situations.

In tech support, you’ll get the lion’s share of phone calls from clients who are overly focused on the immediate problem. To them it seems extraneous to learn why something happens.  But as soon as any little thing changes, they’re reaching for the phone again.  When I’m with them, I want to say; “Put your pen and your legal pad down and let’s just talk a little about web pages and servers and stuff.”

Teaching is a kind of tech support.  Maybe the way we educate now is too heavy with “click here, type these words in…”  Arthur C. Clarke said the ideal classroom was a log, with a teacher at one end and a student at the other.  They could talk, explore ideas, figure things out and be able to adapt when things change.  But the school district has a number of board members who want to make sure there’s no evolution or sex education on the log.  And the parents come in to yell at the instructor for asking mean questions that made the student stay up half the night thinking about them. Then the Department Of Education shows up and starts insisting on standardized tests and whether the students know enough random trivial facts.  Now the kid goes home with a sheaf of homework to be sure he can spew out those facts come NCLB test time. Education just ain’t the same on the log anymore. 

Categories: Education

In case you’re wondering why your kids’ handwriting isn’t up to snuff…

April 8, 2008 8 comments

Remember George Carlin’s routine about his experience in Catholic school?  “Sister Mary-Discipline and her steel ruler – ‘schwaak!!!’ across the knuckles – ‘He’s two years behind in his handwriting, Mrs. Carlin; we don’t know why.” 

Ratchet forward 30 years or so.  Now textbooks have gotten enormous and schools are so regimented that kids don’t have time to go to their lockers.  And they’re required to carry a 3-ring binder for each class, with all their paperwork neatly organized (whether that system works for them or not).  So they’re toting backpacks around that weigh 0.25 times their body weight.  And apparently that cuts off blood flow in the arms, resulting in loss of fine-motor coordination

Mind you, I’m all for trashing cursive handwriting until maybe offering it as an optional extracurricular calligraphy class in high school, because kids’ hands develop at different rates and not everybody can make those stupid little loops in the fourth grade.  But for frakk’s sake, can’t we do something about textbooks that are both heavy and stupid?  Make ‘em lighter, make ‘em smaller, print ‘em on non-glossy paper, and cut out the extraneous crap put in by various hand-wringers with something on their minds besides math, biology, and so forth? Then maybe they could carry their books to school without blood-starving their arms.

Below the fold: a cranky letter I wrote to the editor of the paper years ago, when the local school district was thinking about banning backpacks because kids might be carrying grenade launchers in them or something…

Dear Editor,

Your paper is quick to praise efforts to ban backpacks in schools: “Students survived for years without book bags, and we doubt it will affect their education to do it now.”
I have a 1946 algebra textbook that displaces 45 cubic inches and weighs one pound (about the size of a paperback.) Its 1995 counterpart displaces 98.55 cubic inches and weighs 3 lb, 4 oz. That’s over twice the volume and three times the weight.
My youngest son had a “Life Sciences” (biology) book last year that was too big to fit properly in his locker! He had to put the book in diagonally.
Some teachers at NCHS require kids to carry individual 3-ring binders, and dock their grades if the semester’s papers aren’t all present at inspection.
Kids carry all their books because there isn’t time between classes to get to their lockers. They are penalized for being even one minute late to class, though breaks are short and hallways crowded. The authorities’ solution is to say the kids shouldn’t socialize between classes.
I’m sure there are “good reasons” for all this, but the fact is: kids shoulder a huge burden, and the schools put it there.
Remember that school shootings, though sensationalized by the media, are rare. Making backpacks necessary and then banning them is comically clueless – especially if the school still allows gym bags (carried to the locker room) and purses.
School districts should demand smaller, lighter textbooks from publishers anyway. Those heavy books are actually hurting our kids’ backs.
Between – class time is valuable, too, for lots of reasons. Kids need that time. Not every class is essential, but a moment’s respite may be invaluable.
“Fortress” schools are a terrible civics lesson, pose only a minor obstacle to violence, and certainly alienate disaffected kids. The “answer” may be a more difficult equation: “Rules times relationship equals a constant.”

Categories: Education

Stuffing the Facebook genie back into the bottle

March 9, 2008 3 comments

A freshman biology student at Ryerson University in Toronto faces expulsion for his use of Facebook to form an online study group.  He is charged with academic misconduct.

ScienceBlogger Coturnix summarizes the scandal as “100% administrative fear of the Internet”, raising the issue of pedagogy and study in an age of rapidly changing information technology.

When my oldest son was in the fifth grade, few households had computers and even fewer children used them for schoolwork.  His teacher accused him of cheating because his assignment was typed on a computer instead of handwritten.  She couldn’t verify it was his work, so of course it wasn’t.  Important lesson there: you are cheating if you cannot prove that you are not.

Only a few years ago classrooms were equipped with chalkboards, which is a perfectly fine presentation technology.  Like anything it can be sloppily used but the staccato tap of chalk on board coupled with the excellent contrast of chalk and slate were a versatile tool.  Professors who worked on sharpening their board skills became excellent communicators.  Somehow clicking to the next PowerPoint slide just doesn’t have the same cache.

And yet, like it or not PowerPoint is here so it makes sense to sharpen our PowerPoint skills. (As a support-staff member I give a tiny fraction as many presentations as professors do – just enough to appreciate the amount of work involved)  It doesn’t do any good to pine away for the days when people with asthma could not enter a classroom because of the chalk dust; those days are gone.  Which leads back to the Great Facebook Scandal.

Facebook is a social networking website with both synchronous and asynchronous features.  Like it or not, online social networking is here so it makes sense to adapt to that reality.  It doesn’t do any good to pine away for the days when students could only form study groups that met synchronously in libraries and coffee houses. 

In his post Coturnix and commenters examine what Facebook means for the concept of “cheating”, for grades, for the interface between academia and employers, and for the concept of enterprise collaboration.  The thing that makes a roller-coaster ride so much fun – or so terrifying – is the pace of change.  But the information technology roller-coaster isn’t on rails; nobody’s exactly sure where it will go next.  Which suggests we need to keep our eyes open lest we wake up in an unfamiliar reality with no idea how we got there.


Notes and links:

  • Edward Tufte presentation seminars are invaluable for PowerPoint users, or anyone who presents information in any form.  Universities should consider taking advantage of the opportunity to send faculty and staff while these seminars are still available because Mr. Tufte is not getting any younger.

  • Some people are working on giving the roller-coaster a steering wheel.  My friend Peter Juvinall is experimenting with using Facebook for teaching and gave a poster session at Educause last year on the convergence of Facebook and podcasting. 
Categories: Education

A textbook case - the Open Education Movement

January 27, 2008 1 comment

One of the supposed reasons for playing the lottery is that it gives people the chance to fantasize about what they’d do if they won.  Hell, I do that anyway and the fact that I’ve never bought a ticket has no significant effect on my chances of a big win.

So here’s my fantasy: I’d like to do something about crappy textbooks that schools foist upon our children.  Have you looked at kids’ textbooks lately? They’re garbage.  Seriously, as instruments of study, they aren’t worth the paper the publishers’ advertisements are printed on.

For as much as they weigh and as much as they cost, our kids ought to need their craniums let out to make room for their brains after reading them.  But that isn’t what happens.  Our textbooks are not ‘written’ by an ‘author’, they’re cut and pasted together by a committee, taking care not to offend anyone who might annoy school boards that have purchasing power.  They’re confused, boring, politically correct, and so are the textbooks they create.

These are not books we’d read ourselves, so why do we expect our kids to spend extra time poring over them after a full ‘work’ day?  Make no mistake, a kid’s day at school does not leave them wanting to spend their evenings on the same material.  Do you enjoy spending your evenings on your job?  Or do you prefer to watch TV, pursue a hobby, and relax?  Why is an entire day of regimented subjection to authority not enough time to learn the modest instructional goals of that day?

I’d start an open-source textbook foundation that would recruit good educational authors and pay a base rate for writing, plus a per-copy royalty, bypassing the clunky and special-interested-ridden way in which textbooks are made today. We’d have a testing institute to tweak the books for effectiveness in laboratory classrooms.  Then I’d offer them to schools around the world on a nonprofit, publish-on-demand basis through Amazon or other outlets.  Each book would have its own website with resources and a mechanism for correcting errors.  Readers who identified errors that were later confirmed by expert review within the field covered by the book, would receive a cash reward and honorable mention in the next edition.

It wouldn’t take a lot of money to pay the authors.  My dad wrote textbooks and trust me, there ain’t a lot of money in it, at least not for the author even if the book has one.  And with actual authors putting their names on the content, someone would be responsible for its accuracy and clarity. (Read the link above)

But most importantly, the books would be as free as humanly possible of political correctness.  It’s a math textbook, not a self-esteem enhancer for kids.  It’s a biology textbook, not a slimy way of finessing around evolution for queasy school board members.  Learning math will enhance kids’ self-esteem, and health class should discuss everyone’s health, not just that of middle-class celibate-teen heterosexuals.

OK, I admit that is a nerdy ‘lottery win’ fantasy but it’s mine.  At least the books would be available – at very low cost – to school boards that do want their kids to learn science and math and English.  The way things stand now, it’s almost impossible to buy a really good textbook for grade schools or high schools.  I recommend reading Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police for more on this.  There’s also has a book out from Charles Sykes on how curricula are dumbed down, but I have not read it yet because my blood pressure has been at alarming levels lately.

But it turns out someone is already working on open-source textbooks.  Check these out:

Richard Baraniuk proposes a ‘knowledge ecosystem’ in which textbook content becomes modular, assembled by anyone into tightly focused resources for a given course or purpose.  The content is vetted by ‘lenses’ of review and his organization is listed by the Cape Town Declaration as a ‘Related Initiative’ – along with many others some of which I knew about and some I didn’t.  I may not have won the lottery, but I’ll be exploring this movement to at least find out how it can help our schools.

End Notes:

Categories: Education

Wondering about educational theory

December 4, 2007 11 comments

A classroom assistant I know tells me that at her school, when kids are doing their homework (called “seatwork” if it is intended to be done in class), she isn’t allowed to help them much other than to keep them on task and give them a thumbs up-or-down when they’re done.  The little blighters are pretty much supposed to figure everything out on their own.  At the risk of sounding “old school” this seems wrong to me.

It isn’t much to go on, but a study described at Cognitive Daily on how kids conceptualize numbers at different ages got me wondering if that’s a good strategy. 

The study found that between second and fourth grade, kids seem to undergo a transformation in their understanding of number proportions from zero to one thousand.  Briefly, in the second grade, they couldn’t accurately position numbers like 150 or 366 on a number line.  By fourth grade, they could.  OK, so what?

Here’s what: with minor intervention – like less than an hour – a large minority of the second-graders were able to do the task as well as fourth-graders.  And the new ability stuck with them.  It reminds me of what Arthur C. Clarke said about classroom design: “The ideal classroom is a log, with a teacher on one end and a student on the other.”

There’s a fashion in education where kids are kinda supposed to re-invent the wheel on their own, but in my admittedly limited experience as a tutoring volunteer, for many of them it is only frustrating and confusing.  Just a few hints in the right place, a little nudge here or there, and they “get it”.  And keep on getting it.

Opfer and Siegler argue that a “rapid and broad” change like this can occur in a variety of different types of knowledge, ranging from fractions to biology. They claim that there are certain concepts which, when grasped, open up a whole different understanding or representation of how a system works.

Any thoughts on this, especially from teachers?  Am I missing something?

SIDEBAR DISCUSSION – CD wonders:

One final thought: I wonder if even adults would display a similar pattern to second graders, if the numbers were large enough. I’d be interested to see a study on adults using numbers, say, from zero to a billion. How many adults would properly place the value of one million just a third of a millimeter from the left end of a 30-centimeter line?

I find many adults have trouble with large quantities.  A million, billion, or trillion all sound sort of the same… a godsend to politicians who would rather the voters not think about it too much.

Categories: Education

Brewster Rockit’s Moon

December 2, 2007 2 comments

Kids ought to have the option of “textbooks” that are actually comic books.  Adults too.

I love Brewster Rockit.  It’s such a goofy comic, yet on occasion profound as well.  And there are days – like this one – that I’d laminate and paste up on the wall in a classroom. 

Categories: Education

“Dumb” toys lead to smart kids

November 24, 2007 9 comments

Lead paint isn’t the only thing about a toy that could impair your child’s intellectual development.  Just in time for Christmas toy-buying comes this advice: “Simple Retro Toys May Be Better For Children Than Fancy Electronic Toys.” 

Really, that makes sense to me.  I wouldn’t let a child anywhere near a computer until about the age of 7 or so.  Before then, let them play with blocks, scribble on paper with crayons, tie things up with string, bounce a ball, and squish clay around. 

The article offers advice from the co-authors of a book called Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn—and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less

Categories: Education

Jonathan Kozol lecture this evening

November 14, 2007 1 comment

MrsDoF and I heard a lecture tonight by Jonathan Kozol, the educator and author.  Here (allowing for the well-known inaccuracy of my memory) are a few quotes from his talk:

“Very few great intellectuals devote themselves to writing educational standards.  Can you picture one of the great minds devoting a year or more of their lives chopping cognition into little bits of pretentious curricular sausage?”

“I have dinner with rich people who send their elementary school kids to private academies that cost fifty thousand dollars a year – and they have three in school at once. That’s a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year.  These are the same people who ask me; ‘Is money really the answer?  Can we buy our way to better education?’ If small class size and lots of individual attention is good for the children of the rich, it is good for the children of the poor. ‘All our children have equal value in the eyes of God’, they say, and that’s true; but not in the eyes of America.

 

“I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me as a Jew, to preach the words of Jesus to delinquent Christians”

“There is an infinitely deep hypocrisy in a government that tries to hold an 8-year-old ‘accountable’ for the failings of a deeply unequal, fear-driven system.”

Kozol isn’t going to many dinner parties these days.  He is on a hunger strike, and has lost thirty pounds (at 71, he looks terrible) to protest the failed ‘No Child Left Behind’ law that is up for renewal.  He invites us to write to one of the original co-sponsors of the law, Senator Ted Kennedy, to ask that it be scrapped and educational equality be perused. 

Categories: Education

A tax on people who are bad at maths

November 7, 2007 7 comments

I’ve become accustomed to sad reports of innumeracy in my country, to say nothing of encountering cash register clerks who freeze with terror if I give them $20.02 for a bill of $13.77 But misery loves company.  Apparently the handbasket in which we are riding also has room for our major allies in the War On Terror: Pathetic innumeracy, this time from Great Britain.

“On one of my cards it said I had to find temperatures lower than -8. The numbers I uncovered were -6 and -7 so I thought I had won, and so did the woman in the shop. But when she scanned the card the machine said I hadn’t.

I phoned Camelot and they fobbed me off with some story that -6 is higher – not lower – than -8 but I’m not having it.”

That sobbing you hear must be from UK school teachers.  Of course, since the article is about Brit lottery players we shouldn’t expect that particular demographic to be good at ‘maths’ in the first place.  In any case, the contest has been pulled.  Apparently their phone clerks were spending too much time saying “Well all right then, suppose I dig a hole two meters deep; let’s call that minus two meters…”

Categories: Education

Classroom discipline

October 25, 2007 3 comments

In a previous post about education; “Test Anxiety, Stand And Deliver” we got some really informative comments from an experienced teacher, who made the following point about classroom discipline:

Discipline – I am amazed that schools spend so much time on curriculum and yet spend so little time on a cohesive discipline plan. Parents rarely know that their child is in trouble until the child has been suspended or received some form of severe punishment.  This despite the fact that there are more lines of communication than ever before – ie. websites, email, phone, etc. Parents know instantly how there child is doing with grades thanks to online grades nowadays. However, there is no place for discipline…
(More than one teacher chimed in… go read!)

And today Dynamics Of Cats picks up the same theme:

I was talking to a friend recently. As with many of the volunteers she has no training in education and no experience with actual teaching of groups. She is a professional with two kids of her own.
She mentioned the “two trouble boys” in the class she was helping with, and said she had tried to work with one of them.
After trying to cajole him and then order him to do something, he turned to her and told her bluntly: “I’m not doing it, and you can’t make me”.

He is seven years old. And, he is right…

    Dynamics Of Cats: Children Of Our Time

DOC then carries the idea to a frightening conclusion: Someday those kids will grow up and hold responsible positions in business and government.  And they may still be the same defiant, self-centered little brats at heart when they do.

Must admit I’m stumped by this one.  How can schools get parents onboard with their kids’ discipline?  The solution must, like the problem does, extend beyond school walls.

I told my kids they did not have to respect the teacher, but they had to be respectful towards the teacher.  They were never to disrupt the class, among other things.  But what else?  How do we make it matter to the parents?  I mean not just some punitive measure, but how do we convey the importance of a disciplined learning environment to the parents?

Categories: Education