Saturday, July 30, 2005

MAZE Craze

When I went through ed school, I was exposed to the MAZE craze. I suspect it is more WL mumbo-jumbo. (With MAZE every nth word is omitted in a text. Pupils must guess the missing word).

At ed school we were asked to apply MAZE in a clinical setting to determine the pupils’ supposed reading level. Since the MAZE method is based on false premises, the results are suspect. Harm is done if these questionable results are used to determine reading levels. I say harm because pupils can read at a higher level than MAZE would indicate.

An article on reading myths mentions a study that shows the false premises on which MAZE is based.

Excerpt from the reading myths article:

Myth #5 Skilled reading involves using syntactic and semantic cues to “guess” words, and good readers make many “mistakes” as they read authentic text.

Research indicates that both of these claims are quite wrong, but both are surprisingly pervasive in reading instruction. The idea that good readers use context cues to guess words in running text comes from a method of assessment developed by Ken Goodman that he called “miscue analysis” (which has given rise to the popular “running records” assessments). For his dissertation, Goodman examined the types of mistakes that young readers make, and drew inferences about the strategies they employ as they read. He noticed that the children in his studies very often made errors as they read, but many of these errors did not change the meaning of the text (e.g. misreading “rabbit” as “bunny”). He surmised that the reason must be that good readers depend on context to predict upcoming words in passages of text. He further suggested that for good readers, these context cues are so important that the reader only needs to occasionally “sample” from the text (i.e. look at the words on the page) to confirm the predictions. Children who struggle to sound out words, Goodman says, are over-depending on the letter / word cues, and need to learn to pay more attention to the semantic and syntactic cues.

Goodman’s model, that eventually gave rise to the “Three Cueing Systems” model of word recognition, is very influential in reading instruction, but unfortunately, it has never been supported by research evidence.

In fact, repeated studies have shown that only poor readers depend upon context to try to “guess” words in text. Good readers depend heavily upon the visual information contained in the words themselves (i.e. the letter / word cues) to quickly and automatically identify the word. Keith Stanovich has been especially critical of the three cueing systems model because the predictions made by the model are exactly the opposite of what has been observed in research studies.

Philip Gough and I addressed the second claim and showed that, in fact, good readers almost never make any mistakes at all when they read, which means the notion of conducting a “miscue analysis” is somewhat suspect. How can you perform a miscue analysis when there are typically no miscues? We had over 400 college students read a passage of text from Ken Goodman’s book Phonics Phacts, and showed that the modal number of mistakes made by these students was zero. Almost all of the students read the passage flawlessly. To suggest that good readers are correctly guessing the words in the passage with one-hundred percent accuracy stretched the boundaries of credulity.

However, to be sure, we examined how accurate people would be if they were forced to use semantics and context as their only cues. We concealed the passage of text and asked our college students to guess each of the words in the passage one at a time; after each guess, the correct word was revealed, and students were asked to guess the next word. This process was repeated for every word in the passage, so the students always knew the words leading up to the unknown word. We found that, given unlimited time to ponder, students were able to correctly guess one out of ten content words in the passage. That’s a ninety percent failure rate, as opposed to the zero percent failure rate seen in skilled readers who were not forced to make guesses based on context.

It is clear that good readers depend very heavily upon the visual information contained in the word for word identification (what is commonly called the graphemic information or orthographic information). The semantic and syntactic information is critical for comprehension of passages of text, but they do not play an important role in decoding or identifying words. Good readers make virtually no mistakes as they read because they have developed extremely effective and efficient word identification skills that do not depend upon semantics/context or syntax. For good readers, word identification is fast, fluent, and automatic. It needs to be so that their attention can be fully focused on using semantics and syntax to comprehend the text.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Fun with Edspeak

Check out this Educational Jargon Generator to tap a rich source of impressive-sounding ed phrases. You can dazzle your friends with phrases like "revolutionize problem-based curriculum integration." Or how about "synergize cooperative critical thinking" or if that won't do try "integrate mission-critical pedagogy."

Monday, July 18, 2005

Pensée unique

This report from a past National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) conference reveals the near-totalitarian mentality of the crowd that dominates this nebulous field. There is no reason to believe that anything has changed.

Throughout the conference, in plenary and small-group sessions alike, conspiracy theories abounded. To NCSS members, at least, the vast right-wing conspiracy is alive and thriving. Apparently their definition of “radical right wing” now includes anyone who advocates school choice, standards and accountability, alternative teacher certification, or other such reforms. Moreover, such “reformers” and policy makers are all part of a political conspiracy to undermine public education. I encountered precisely one person who could actually articulate what he thought the conspiracy was; everyone else settled for the simplistic assertion that “politics” is driving these unwelcome reforms.

The conspiracy, insisted one NCSS member whose name I didn’t catch, is driven by right-wing ideologues who use testing, standards, and accountability to set public schools up for failure. Then they’ll be able to divert public funding to private schools. The notion that these “ideologues” might just want what’s best for kids was rejected on its face as preposterous.

Were I a conspiracy theorist, however, I now have enough information to conclude the opposite: that the education establishment in general, and the NCSS in particular, are working energetically to shut down the kind of dissent and debate that makes effective reforms possible. Consider, for example, that while NCSS leaders discussed and denounced Fordham’s recent publication
Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? at more than one session, they didn’t invite a single author, editor, Fordham staffer, or really anyone who disagrees with the status quo to engage in debate.

But it gets worse. The self-styled “Contrarians,” a tiny band of teachers and ed school professors within NCSS who believe that social studies urgently needs an overhaul, have tried for two years to get a session at the NCSS annual wingding. In 2002, though ostensibly granted a session, it was conveniently left off the program and thus couldn’t meet. This year, though their session was listed on the program, NCSS conveniently double-booked the room. So the Contrarians scrambled to find an empty room with no help from NCSS (and minimal help from the hotel). After two tries, they finally found a spot and were able to proceed on their own, no thanks to the NCSS.

A small group attended, including a hostile NCSS past president and a current board member. A few of the authors of Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? presented their arguments, then opened the floor for discussion--a real one that included debate of hotly contested issues, something that I had not seen in any other NCSS session. During this debate, however, I was amazed by the mean, ad hominem, and insulting nature of the comments from the social studies establishment. Though the NCSS board member said that a more “productive” way to air these matters would be for the Contrarians to hold a general session where they presented their ideas and brought in opponents who could debate the pros and cons, in fact NCSS for years now has refused to give the Contrarians any room at their conference, let alone a large room to hold a general session and debate.

The theme of this year’s conference was: “The power of one: How to make a difference in a changing world.” Based on the efforts of the NCSS elite to promote a one-sided look at social studies education while stifling all attempts to question the status quo, I can only conclude that they truly believe in the power of one--and fear that permitting even a single voice of dissent might put at risk the enormous influence they have over the field of social studies.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Sparkling quackery

The Gates foundation keeps pouring money into the small-schools project. Even though small schools are an attractive notion, they are of little use if the curriculum and instruction are rotten. Small schools also seem to attract activists with political agendas.

I found this ad seeking math teachers for a sparkling new small school in Chicago (excerpt):

The Multicultural Arts School, an exciting, innovative new arts integrated high school that will be opening in September in the Little Village Lawndale High School Campus needs math teachers! We are looking for dedicated, creative professionals to teach the IMP math program in our brand new, state of the art, community based school. You will have the best of all facilities and resources and you will be a member of an incredible, talented, innovative, and challenging team.
What caught my eye is that this "exciting" new school wants to use the dreadful, constructivist IMP math program. IMP, which stands for Interactive Mathematics Program, has been thoroughly denounced by mathematicians, including by Bastiaan J. Braams who calls it the "most degenerate of all mathematics programs."

Sparkling new buildings and the "best of all facilities and resources" are going to be for naught if the curriculum and instructional practices -- the soul of a school -- follow educational quackery and are corrupted. It reminds me of Matthew's admonition which could be adapted to the situation with some modification: "For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Algebra through literature

When learning algebra gets too tiring, you can always brighten up your day through fun literature. Here is ENC with a slew of suggestions but will this make kids more proficient?

Exploring math outside the "math textbook box" can make math interesting and different in charming ways for students and teachers. This is fairly easy to do in the elementary grades. There are a number of excellent books for younger students (two favorites come to mind immediately--Sir Cumference and the Round Table and Counting on Frank), and students love them. But obvious curriculum links with literature get slimmer in mathematics in later grades even though literature is still a good way to engage student interest and expand learning. Here we are highlighting books with mathematics that should be accessible to students who are studying either algebra or geometry--there is no higher math to scare students! Our goal is to offer ideas for teaching mathematics using books and stories that should interest young teens.
I am all in favor of fun and making connections but I am afraid there is no substitute for hard work.

The fiction and nonfiction books we feature offer a different approach to thinking about mathematics. The books explore mathematics as part of today's world and as part of history. A literature approach can offer ways to look at current issues (see 200% of Nothing) or to explore a little math history (see the reprinted 1919 classic Number Stories of Long Ago).

We also suggest three literary works that may seem unusual for a math class, but they were selected for their easy-to-find mathematics and an enjoyable story to read. You can access them online--the latest format for these classic stories:

"The Priory School," The Return of Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle--available in book form and on the web:
"The Lottery," by Shirley Jackson--available in book form and on the web:
Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift--available in book form and on the web:

Friday, July 01, 2005

Pugilist match

There is a long, civilized (contrary to what my pun might imply) and enlightening debate going on at Kitchen Table Math about a math professor's discovery and use of a new-fangled (but really same old hat) method called POGIL (Process Guided-Inquiry Learning).

NSF-funded POGIL promises to extend constructivism to higher education. Reading POGIL's description of itself makes it clear that it is the same constructivist boilerplate so nauseatingly familiar to those who had the misfortune to be dragged through ed school.

"Recent developments in cognitive learning theory as well as results of classroom research suggest that most students experience improved learning when they are actively engaged and when they are given the opportunity to construct their own knowledge. These results counter the widespread misapprehension that effective teaching must be instructor-centered, involving the transfer of content directly from the expert (professor) to the novice (student). More "student-centered" approaches to learning are based on the premises that students will learn better when: they are actively engaged and thinking in class; they construct knowledge and draw conclusions by analyzing data and discussing ideas; they learn how to work together to understand concepts and solve problems; and the instructor serves as a facilitator to assist students in the learning process."

As the math professor discusses at his own site and in this debate, he finds useful elements in the method. But is his approach still POGIL?

Kitchen Table Math is a lively site I am addicted to. I highly recomend it.