Saturday, April 28, 2007

Making connections

In IF You Liked Whole-Word Reading, Open Classrooms & Fuzzy Math
You Will Love Inquiry-Based Science
Charles Ormsby makes connections between modern fads dreamed up by ed gurus. What loony idea will come next? Suggestions welcome.

Teaching different achievement levels simultaneously is particularly obnoxious. It violates a basic law of physics that says that a body cannot be in different places at the same time. Consequently, teacher input is fragmented and rendered ineffective. But what are laws of physics to ed gurus who don't believe in a stable body of knowledge and instead conceive of knowledge only as "information" that keeps changing so rapidly that it need not be learned?

Guru advice that there is no need to learn anything because one can always look up the "information" somewhere is also fallacious. A lot of things we might know require extensive struggle to achieve understanding. I teach middle grades math and see daily that achieving an understanding of topics like ratios, proportions, percentages, unit rates, operations with integers, geometry, even ordering fractions, doesn't come easily. It's not a matter of looking it up when needed and grasping it instantly. It requires time and effort. What is true for math is also true for science and other subjects. Imagine trying to "look up" and understand topics in organic chemistry without a laboriously acquired firm grounding in chemistry. Or making sense of all the difficult terms in biology that were never memorized and understood if guru advice is followed.

See this hilarious video and see how handy "looking it up when needed" is.

[Note: There is certainly no dearth of grossly ignorant people. However, this video appears to be rigged by means of selectiveness to promote a biased point of view. The selection of people being interviewed is hardly representative. One could easily do the opposite: Interview a sizable number of people at random and then select only the knowledgeable ones to "prove" that the public is highly sophisticated.]

Here Ormsby:

As if deciding that we shouldn’t teach the magic code was not enough, professional educators decided to re-engineer the learning environment in the classroom. Again, we have thousands of years of experience in the design of learning environments. Past experience underlined the need for mental focus and concentration … a condition that is seriously hampered by distractions. Even parents who are not trained as educators seem to realize that children should turn off the TV and rap music while trying to absorb a history or math lesson.

But our education gurus had a deeper insight than the rest of us mere mortals could possibly appreciate. They figured that if you put classrooms together, without walls between them, the students would benefit from all the noise. It made sense to them, apparently, that understanding algebra or trigonometry would be enhanced by students reciting Shakespeare in the adjacent classroom! What were they thinking?

To make matters worse – is it even possible? – educators decided to give the teachers an extra challenge. Instead of having teachers teach a subject to a set of students who are roughly at the same achievement level in a subject, they decided to force them to teach to multiple levels simultaneously.

In a fourth-grade math class, teachers are required to teach simple addition and multiplication to some students while teaching division to others, and fractions to their most advanced students.

When it comes time for English Language Arts (read’n & write’n), they must simultaneously teach basic reading skills to some while discussing the classics with others.

Of course, they can’t actually do these things simultaneously, so they have to break up the class into more homogeneous groups and then split their time among the groups. Now students who could have had the teacher’s attention for the whole class, can only get it for a portion of the class time.


Since the teacher splits the class up to make the sub-groups more similar in achievement level, one might ask, “WHY DIDN’T THEY DO THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE?” What were they thinking?

Last week I had occasion to witness a classroom in the inner city run by an admittedly incompetent substitute that was completely thrashed by pupils running wild like atoms flying around in a heated substance. It brought to mind the stark contrast between guru preachings about "inquiry," "discovery," "constructing knowledge and meaning," natural curiosity, and the reality of this classroom.

UPDATE: rightwingprof left a comment pointing out that we have a demonstration here of a student-centered classroom. Student centered indeed!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

DOE to parents: Don't mess with the fuzzies

Occasionally slightly testy but mostly to the point text savvy takes issue with the Department of Education's recommendation that parents become a cog in fuzzy math schemes:

Try to be aware of how your child is being taught math, and don't teach strategies and shortcuts that conflict with the approach the teacher is using. Check in with the teacher and ask what you can do to help. Ask the teacher about online resources that you can use with your child at home.
(Via KTM II)

text savvy observes dryly that parents have a long history of passing on various skills to their offspring:

In case anyone (like the DOE) needs the obvious stated, parents have been successfully passing on low-order and high-order cognitive skills to their offspring long before there were schools, lesson plans, professional development seminars, research grants, or instructional philosophies.
text savvy even alludes to evolutionary roots explaining this parent behavior but is willing to make exceptions for certain tribes in a bow to the phenomenon of bongo-bongoism.

New math language

In a post called Math for poets, Linda Moran cites the comments from a mother and scientist that illustrate how traditional math terms are being swept away by fuzzy math. Apparently, terms like angles and degrees are too taxing:

In TERC it is
*joining not addition
*separating not subtraction
*bits and pieces and not fractions
*capacity and not volume
*it is what the calculator displays and not decimals.
*it is "landmarks" rather than ALL the numbers in the decimal system.
*it is turns and not angles and degrees.
*it is write a story and not write the equation.
*it is draw pictures and not show a true effective reusable strategy.
Fuzzy math was designed to make math "accessible" to large segments of the population which in the view of the fuzzy math creators were hitherto marginalized by rigorous math instruction. But by taking math out of "math", everybody loses.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Whole language debate

Who that?
Good debate about whole language vs. phonics at edspresso. Ken De Rosa, a phonics advocate, locks horns with whole language teacher Nancy Creech. Ken likens whole language advocates to the Japanese who were still roaming the jungles for years after the end of WW II, refusing to give up.

I have seen the sad victims of the psycholinguistic guessing game promoted by whole language. Words come out of the mouth of these victims that are nowhere in the sentence. Context clues are important for meaning but not for decoding, perhaps with the exception of words like read and lead. It does take a special zealotry to cling to this failed method.

See Martin Kozloff's A Whole Language Catalogue of the Grotesque for what whole language gurus actually believe. It's like entering a fun house with hideously distorting mirrors.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

What I learned in PD today

From a professional development day inspired by an ASCD presentation by Dr. Jan Jones called Building Millennial Minds: Preparing Today's Students for Tomorrow's World I learned that:

Change is exponential. Gates says technology capacity doubles every nine months. Photonics leads to unimaginable data transmission rates. Semantic Web will be our new global brain.

The world is changing four times faster than schools (Dr. Willard Daggett).* Actually, the doctor is a bit fuzzy with the number. The exact number is 4.2651.

[The vision I have is of a globe spinning so rapidly that it'll throw everyone into space, including educationists].

Kids are immersed in fancy new technology (digital natives).

People will not earn a living, they'll learn a living.

21th century skills redefine core skills. What are those new core skills? Deep conceptual knowledge, critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving, innovation, imagination.

[I am afraid the mindless repetition of the critical thinking mantra will dull the senses and stop all thinking in its track. What's needed is critical thinking about "critical thinking."]

What are the implications for teaching of all this? I quote: "Learning can no longer be full, frontal lecturing or recall of data/facts, content."

[This is a spectacular non sequitur. Doubling technology capacity (whatever that is), faster data transmission rates and kids running around with iPods have no bearing on what content should be learned and how it should be taught. If it isn't dizzying technological change but the call for "deep conceptual knowledge" that necessitates the abandonment of content recall, then there is trouble, too. How is one supposed to have "deep conceptual knowledge" without engagement with content, i.e. assimilating or learning the content? Recall is another way of saying that content has been learned. A conceptualization is an abstraction from facts, a way to bring order to otherwise disparate facts. Conceptual knowledge, deep or otherwise, is impossible without that basis. So once again, educationists are blowing smoke, apparently enamored of the high-falutin' sound of these phrases without applying some critical thinking.]

What takes its place:

Big ideas

21th century learnings [note the plural]

Melding disciplines

Unique connections

Meta-cognitive options

Focusing instruction on relevance (don't fixate on minutiae, high-stakes testing)

Digital age literacies, e.g. health & wellness literacy, visual/performing arts literacy, information literacy, multicultural literacy... [Another example of educationist corruption of a good word that is now rendered meaningless].

So just go ahead, do the critical thinking and creating. No need to know anything.

*The sound of "change" makes educationists delirious. It's as intoxicating as a bottle of vodka. The change that whips them into a frenzy is mostly of a superficial nature, like faster data transmission rates and higher flash card storage capacity, kids adept at playing with new electronic gadgets and so on. From this they draw illogical conclusions about what and how things should be taught.

To calm them down from this frenzy and to rehearse critical thinking skills, I recommend that educationists be required to write a rigorous, lenghty and critical essay before Ed. D.'s are handed out. This essay could be called Change and Continuity. The objective of this essay is to examine what changes are occurring, whether these changes are profound or superficial and what, if any, effect they should have on the academic curriculum.

Educationists should then compare and contrast these changes to what stays the same in the various subject areas, 21th century or not. Educationists could ask themselves a long list of questions pertaining to the various disciplines. For example, do faster data transmission rates and high-capacity flash cards alter the laws of gravity and motion, planetary orbits and atom bonding, or the electromagnetic spectrum and Fraunhofer lines? Do these technological changes impinge on photosynthesis and animal cell structure? Or refraction and the Doppler effect? Do they make 2 + 2 = 4 untrue? Is pi no longer the ratio of circumference to diameter because of dizzying 21th century changes and yet-unheard of electronic gadgets? Did Caesar suddenly not cross the Rubicon because Gates predicts a doubling of technological capacity every nine months?

Requiring educationists to pose and answer these questions could have a sobering effect. But I wouldn't count on it.

So that's what it is!

Maybe one day I'll pin down what this "constructivism" is. Is it a theory of knowing as some claim? Or is it an approach to teaching as the influential Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development claims:

The Definition of Constructivism

Constructivism is an approach to teaching based on research about how people learn. Many researchers say that each individual constructs knowledge rather than receiving it from others.

Although people disagree about how to achieve constructive learning, constructive teaching is based on the belief that students learn best when they gain knowledge through exploration and active learning. Hands-on materials are used instead of textbooks, and students are encouraged to think and explain their reasoning instead of memorizing and reciting facts. Education is centered on themes and concepts and the connections between them, rather than isolated information.

Source: From The Language of Learning: A Guide to Education Terms, by J. L. McBrien and R. S. Brandt, 1997, Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
So, many researchers say that each individual constructs knowledge rather than receiving it from others. Ain't that grand. How did these researchers figure this out? Did they research how each individual constructs the periodic table, how atoms bond, how the sun produces energy? How individuals construct knowledge about the Renaissance period? Ah, I forgot. Through hands-on materials instead of textbooks.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

More intense, instead of longer school day

The New York Times reports that many states and school districts with failing schools are seeking salvation in a longer school day. Failing Schools See a Solution in Longer Day. Prodigious amounts of money are once again being made available for a solution that is likely to yield negligible results:

FALL RIVER, Mass. — States and school districts nationwide are moving to lengthen the day at struggling schools, spurred by grim test results suggesting that more than 10,000 schools are likely to be declared failing under federal law next year.

In Massachusetts, in the forefront of the movement, Gov. Deval L. Patrick is allocating $6.5 million this year for longer days and can barely keep pace with demand: 84 schools have expressed interest.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York has proposed an extended day as one of five options for his state’s troubled schools, part of a $7 billion increase in spending on education over the next four years — apart from the 37 minutes of extra tutoring that children in some city schools already receive four times a week.

And Gov. M. Jodi Rell of Connecticut is proposing to lengthen the day at persistently failing schools as part of a push to raise state spending on education by $1 billion.


And of all the steps school districts take to try to improve student achievement, lengthening the day is generally the costliest — an extra $1,300 a student annually here in Massachusetts — and difficult to sustain.
Schools would do better to focus on wasted time during the existing school day rather than lengthening the school day. Schools should work more intensely, instead of longer. Schools should ask themselves: Do we really need all these endless blocks for sustained, silent reading of vapid fiction? Shouldn't we perhaps also be reading some science stories, biographies, history? What about this time-consuming bean-counting project? Do kids really need to be spending a week to count a million mung beans? Another papier-mâché dinosaur?

I propose a different model.

For a fraction of the additional funds the states are willing to dish out, the districts could try a much more effective model: Offering intensive academic support (IAS) to small groups (not more than ten) during regular school hours in failing schools. This support can be offered for math and science, for example, two areas in which the disadvantaged fail spectacularly. It would require hiring a few new teachers with expertise in the respective subject areas per struggling school. These intensive academic support sessions could be held during the prep times of regular classroom teachers.

Such an approach would do wonders to the math and science education of the disadvantaged. Because of large classrooms and frequent disruptions, regular classroom teachers cannot offer the individualized and sustained attention the disadvantaged need to succeed in math and science. Many are so far behind and have such poor work and study habits that only intensive and sustained academic involvement will bring them up to speed.

It can be done.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

What to do with disruptive students

I wrote a deliberately provocative post on the huge problem of disruptive students (Segregate non-students). This has generated a series of very thoughtful exchanges by Diana, NYC Math Teacher and Larry Strauss. The responses add much more complexity and subtlety to this problem than expressed in my prescription. I encourage everyone to read the comments.

I particularly like Larry Strauss' suggestion:

If you are going to remove disruptive students, do so for a positive reason, some form of behavioral intervention; call it a good manners academy and get a well-paid tattooed drill sergeant to conduct it.
How issues are framed and formulated is crucial when seeking solutions.

Monday, April 02, 2007

History is knowable, teachable and testable

Less than a year ago, the Florida legislature caused a sharp outcry by requiring that the U.S. history taught in the state's schools "shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed" and "shall be viewed as knowable, teachable and testable."

For example, there was this Op-Ed in the NYT that made the case that facts need to be interpreted. The folks at Common Dreams seemed to believe that the sky was falling and the end of "critical thinking" had arrived:

Florida's Fear of History: New Law Undermines Critical Thinking
by Robert Jensen

One way to measure the fears of people in power is by the intensity of their quest for certainty and control over knowledge.

By that standard, the members of the Florida Legislature marked themselves as the folks most terrified of history in the United States when last month they took bold action to become the first state to outlaw historical interpretation in public schools. In other words, Florida has officially replaced the study of history with the imposition of dogma and effectively outlawed critical thinking.

Instead of being terrified of history as the Common Dreamers claim, according to the Tampa Tribune the proponents of the law were simply perturbed by the "widespread lack of knowledge about U.S. government and history." So the Dreamers have it backwards: The lawmakers don't fear history. They want more of it.

I also found talk about meaning and significance in the Florida statute. This does not sound like a ban on critical thinking:

(b) The history, meaning, significance, and effect of the provisions of the Constitution of the United States and amendments thereto, with emphasis on each of the 10 amendments that make up the Bill of Rights and how the constitution provides the structure of our government.
There were also voices that derided such apocalyptic visions:

Construction Deconstructed
Facts and snippy academics.

By Matthew J. Franck
Academics are touchy people — especially when mere mortals presume to speak for themselves on matters where the professors claim expertise. So Cornell historian Mary Beth Norton lashed out, in the Sunday New York Times, against the Florida legislature for daring to make law on a subject squarely within its responsibility — educational standards in history — without apparently consulting the most enlightened members of the history professoriate, like, say, Mary Beth Norton. Oh dear, what trouble those poor legislators bought themselves. I’m sure they’re all slapping their foreheads and saying “Dang! Why didn’t we ask this Norton woman for advice!”

For Norton, the first cardinal sin the legislature could have avoided was its statement, in a revision of Florida education statutes, that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed.” Tsk, tsk. “Facts,” Norton says, “mean little or nothing without being interpreted — another word for ‘constructed.’ All historians know that facts never speak for themselves.” Somehow I think people who have made it their work to write laws didn’t need to be told about the importance of interpretation, of facts or anything else. So Norton’s preening and condescension are certainly misplaced here. Her assertion is a half-truth anyway. Facts are what they are. (The Second Continental Congress did vote for independence on July 2, 1776, to use an example of Norton’s. That speaks for itself whether anyone is listening or not.) “Meaning” is another matter, and facts rise and fall in our estimation with the uses we make of them. This much is true too — one might say it’s a fact — and if that’s all Norton wants to claim, she surely has no quarrel with the Florida legislature.
This controversy seems strange at first but becomes clearer when one considers the inroads postmodernism has made into the field of history. Matthew J. Franck continues:

But let’s do a little interpretation ourselves. It seems not to have occurred to Norton that when the Florida legislature decreed that in the state’s schools history shall be treated by teachers “as factual, not as constructed,” it was evidently taking sides in a debate in Norton’s own discipline. (I say “evidently” because I have no inside dope from Tallahassee — only the eyes of a reader of the statute.) As the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle observed a decade ago in The Killing of History, postmodern social theory has been invading the historical profession, reducing “the belief that there are ‘facts’ about history” to the status of “an ideological position” with no privileged status over the competing view that “history is nothing more than a form of literature.” Perhaps Norton, who declares that she “love[s] facts,” hasn’t heard of this crisis in her own discipline. But someone in Florida seems to have heard of it. And that “not as constructed” language in the new state law was surely aimed at such fashions of postmodernism, with the intent of keeping the state’s history teachers from donning those new clothes.
In a review of Keith Windschuttle's book in The New Criterion, Roger Kimball chronicles the strange things that have been happening to the study of history. At bottom, it is an abandonment of the commitment to truth:

One depressing sign of this situation is the absolute horror with which the idea of “objective truth” is regarded in chic academic circles today. Another is the widespread tendency to downgrade facts to matters of opinion—a tendency that follows naturally from the rejection of objective truth. This shows itself in the amazingly prevalent assumption that truth is “relative,” i.e., that the truth of what is said depends crucially upon the interests, prejudices, even the sex or ethnic origin of the speaker rather than—well, than the truth or falsity of what the speaker says. The basic idea is that truth is somehow invented rather than discovered. Typical of this position is the feminist complaint about “male-centered” epistemologies that make false claims to universality (another word that inspires panic) or objectivity.
So I say, let's first get a factual foundation in history. Then interpretation can follow. Interpretation without a factual foundation is just empty palaver.