Friday, January 28, 2005

Technology misused to dumb down education

This story from England is worrysome. Could the U.S. be far behind?

Educationists forever babble on about alleged new needs created by the transition from one century to the other. Somehow these alleged new needs are said to make academic knowledge superfluous.

This story tells how technology is put in the service of this dumbing-down campaign:

Symbolically, Ken Boston, its chief executive, chose the annual educational technology show at Olympia earlier this month to launch the movement's manifesto.

Called the "Futures Programme", it aims to ensure that the national curriculum and assessment methods are "responsive to the changing demands of work and life in the 21st century". The document's message is summed up in one artless sentence: "Young people say that school prepares them well for examinations but not enough for real life and work."

Instead of dismissing the statement as anti-educational nonsense, the QCA embraces it. Employers, it explains, are not looking for people who are educated. Yes, they want them to be "literate and numerate and have information technology skills".

But what they're really after are "people who can build and maintain relationships, work productively in teams and communicate effectively. They look for problem-solvers, people who take responsibility and make decisions and are flexible, adaptable and willing to learn new skills."

Here is how it works:

In history, for example, instead of learning about the Norman invasion of Britain, 12-year-olds should log on to the internet, search for websites on the Bayeux Tapestry and then present their conclusions on the "reliability of the tapestry as a source of evidence".

Thirteen-year-olds, instead of learning about Henry VIII, should search the internet for images of the king – "old, young, fat, thin" – and use these to "produce leaflets presenting different views of him".

Fourteen-year-olds, instead of learning about the First World War, should "produce presentations to sell a history trip to the battlefields in northern France, tailoring the content and form to the perceived needs of their audience".

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Japanese math instruction demystified

Japanese math instruction has been erroneously portrayed as favoring so-called discovery learning. Alan Siegel, a professor of computer science at New York University, took a careful look at Japanese math instruction and finds that the underlying approach is direct instruction and repetitive practice.

Alan Siegel's study is available here

Also see a column by Linda Seebach describing the study.

Excerpt from Linda Seebach's column:

The Rocky Mountain News

"An illusory math reform; let's go to the videotape"
by Linda Seebach

August 7, 2004
American children come off badly in international comparisons of mathematics performance, and they do worse the longer they're in school.

One such comparison, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, tested more than 500,000 children in 41 countries, starting in 1995. As part of the study, researchers videotaped more than 200 eighth-grade math lessons.

These lessons have been studied intensively in an effort to figure out why Japanese students do so well in math while American students do so badly. Alan Siegel, a professor of computer science at New York University, has reviewed the videos and calls the teaching "masterful."

He also believes that many of the TIMSS studies contain "serious errors and misunderstandings." If you have doubts, he says on his Web site, "go review the tapes and check out the references. After all, that's what I did." ( His paper also appears in a recent volume of essays on testing published by the Hoover Institution, Testing Student Learning, Evaluating Teacher Effectiveness.

The eighth-grade geometry lesson Siegel discusses is based on the theorem that two triangles with the same base and the same altitude have the same area, and it is framed in nominally "real world" terms as a problem in figuring out how to straighten the boundary fence between two farmers' fields so that neither farmer loses any land. This is, of course, highly relevant to urban Japanese youngsters, who are likely to be called upon frequently to accomplish this task.

The teacher first primes the class by reminding them of the theorem, which they had studied the previous day. Then he playfully suggests with a pointer some ways to draw a new boundary, most of them amusingly wrong but a couple that are in fact the lines students will have to draw to solve the problem (though they aren't identified as such).

Then he gives the students a brief time, three minutes, to wrestle with the problem by themselves, and another few minutes for those who have figured out a solution based on his broad hints to present it. Then he explains the solution, and then he extends the explanation to a slightly more complex problem, and finally assigns yet another extension for homework.

As Siegel describes it, "The teacher-led study of all possible solutions masked direct instruction and repetitive practice in an interesting and enlightening problem space.

"Evidently, no student ever developed a new mathematical method or principle that differed from the technique introduced at the beginning of the lesson. In all, the teacher showed 10 times how to apply the method."

But that's not the way the lesson has been described in the literature. A 2000 commission report from the U.S. Department of Education, Before It's Too Late, gushes that in Japan, "teachers begin by presenting students with a mathematics problem employing principles they have not yet learned. They then work alone or in small groups to devise a solution. After a few minutes, students are called on to present their answers; the whole class works through the problems and solutions, uncovering the related mathematical concepts and reasoning."

How could Japanese children solve problems based on "principles they have not yet learned"? Why, in the same way that Meno's slave solved a mathematical problem on the exact same day that Socrates happened to be asking him questions.

As to how this confusion might arise, Siegel notes that a report by J.W. Stigler and others for the National Center for Education Statistics, The TIMSS Videotape Classroom Study, uses this very lesson as an example of how their data analysts were trained to identify solutions discovered by students.

"Altogether, this lesson is counted as having 10 student-generated alternative solution methods, even though it contains no student-discovered methods whatsoever," Siegel says.

Furthermore, the mathematicians who wrote about the study subsequently didn't see the original tapes; they relied on the misleading coding done by the data analysts.
Why does it matter? Because so-called "discovery learning" is the promised land of mathematics reform, and if only we follow the prophecies of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics across the River Jordan, all our failings and failures as a nation will vanish away. And we know the prophecies are true, because the Japanese have gone before us.

Only they haven't. This is teaching in the traditional mode, beautifully designed and superbly executed, but nothing like the parody of instruction that goes by the term "discovery learning" in math-reform circles in the United States.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Educationists balk at research findings

Research shows that educationists balk at research contradicting their dogmas.

Although the results of Project Follow Through were clear, the U.S. education establishment fled from those results in conspicuous panic. The Ford Foundation hastened to do an evaluation suggesting it was inappropriate to even ask which model worked best.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Heroic principal and disadvantaged fall victim to ed cultists.

Here is an article with a lot of details about the scandalous demotion of a principal for using effective reading methods.

Hat tip to Prof. Plum and Andrew Wolf.

Published: January 16, 2005
Local News: Rockford Approach to reading argued The district’s instructional chief says direct instruction falls short in the long run.
By CARRIE WATTERS, Rockford Register Star
ROCKFORD — Lewis Lemon Principal Tiffany Parker was relieved of instructional duties last week for not implementing an approach to reading that new administrators ushered in this school year.
Parker’s removal was the flash point in a brewing battle over how children are taught to read, one of the most critical skills and also one of the most emotional parts of teaching.
Parents gathered at the school on Thursday to strategize how to protect a reading program they say works. “If the mountain needs to be moved, move it. But if it’s working, keep it,” said parent Tamara Watkins.
Lewis Lemon’s third-grade students did move a mountain of statistics that show a national scourge: minority and poor students persistently performing below their classmates. The west-side students, 80 percent black and nearly as many poor, came in second in the district behind King gifted students on the state reading test in 2003.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Ed wars

In A Brief History of American K-12 Mathematics Education, David Klein makes the remarkable observation that "[i]t would be a mistake to think of the major conflicts in education as disagreements over the most effective ways to teach."

Such are the perversions of progressive/constructivist educational practice that what would seem obvious is nothing of the sort.

The money quote:

It would be a mistake to think of the major conflicts in education as disagreements over the most effective ways to teach. Broadly speaking, the education wars of the past century are best understood as a protracted struggle between content and pedagogy. At first glance, such a dichotomy seems unthinkable. There should no more be conflict between content and pedagogy than between one's right foot and left foot. They should work in tandem toward the same end, and avoid tripping each other. Content is the answer to the question of what to teach, while pedagogy answers the question of how to teach.

The trouble comes with the first step. Do we lead with the right foot or the left? If content decisions come first, then the choices of pedagogy may be limited. A choice of concentrated content precludes too much student centered, discovery learning, because that particular pedagogy requires more time than stiff content requirements would allow. In the same way, the choice of a pedagogy can naturally limit the amount of content that can be presented to students. Therein lies the source of the conflict.