Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Navigating ed school

A reader asked me how I was able to navigate ed school considering the dominance of the constructivist creed and my instructivist views. I tried to voice my criticisms in my papers and discussions without being overly abrasive, and was able to get through the experience. It also helps to pay some lip service to the creed.

I am posting here my teaching philosophy that I wrote at the time. Writing a teaching philosophy was a requirement. The paper is an illustration of my approach. It was a time full of optimism, as yet unmarred by the reality of the classroom. If ed school had concentrated less on theory and more on what's actually going on in an inner city classroom, it could have had some value.

My Teaching Philosophy

My fundamental belief as a prospective teacher is that learning need not be drudgery. As a teacher I would like to inspire my pupils to see learning and the discovery of new things as a joyous activity. Teaching is as much a science as an art. An effective teacher must not only master the subject matter he/she is teaching and be conversant with educational psychology and the latest learning theories, but must also inspire through strength of personality. Having a good sense of humor, a well-modulated voice and some acting ability is a conditio sine qua non for an effective teacher. A good and effective teacher must also teach how to think critically and how to discover connections. Facts in isolation are useless and easily forgotten. They become meaningful when placed in context with the proper background to fit into a framework or a whole.

In my view an effective teacher must choose the best methods and techniques traditional and innovative approaches to teaching have to offer. An effective teacher must be an open-minded hybrid guided by constant reality checks. An enthusiasm for innovative approaches must not displace the ability to learn from experience. An effective teacher must be armed with the analytical skills to make him/her an intelligent consumer of research and practitioner of educational theories. All too often educational theories are misunderstood and become a travesty of the original intent. Some of these misunderstood or misapplied notions, techniques and theories are developmentalism, child-centered education, constructivism and multiple intelligences.

Developmentalism is a romantic view of the child best illustrated in Rousseau's Emile. Rousseau sees the child as natural and good. The child must be shielded from the corrupting influence of the adult world. This view creates a dichotomy between what is "natural" (and therefore good) and the accomplishments of civilization that could include book learning that are regarded as artificial. The child must follow his natural inclinations and discover the world for himself at his own pace. All too often that inclination doesn't materialize and the child falls behind in academic achievement. Closely related to this romantic view of the child is the notion of developmentally appropriate instruction. While sensible on its face, the danger of this notion is that it can easily slide into low expectations. Low expectations are particularly harmful to disadvantaged children and tend to reinforce the status quo and perpetuate the stratification of society. Parents enjoying a high socioeconomic status can always hire a tutor for their offspring if schooling fails.

Constructivism is based on the belief that students learn best when they construct their own knowledge. Students are not passive vessels to be filled but must be active participants to retain and integrate knowledge. This insight derived from memory research is often misunderstood to mean that students should not have external input and be the beneficiaries of knowledge accumulated over thousands of years; that they must reinvent the wheel so to speak. This particular form of constructivism that privileges and finds expression in discovery learning disregards the fact that all learning activity, including listening to expository instruction, is constructivist, i.e. requires active engagement.

Misunderstandings of a similar nature apply to Gardner's multiple intelligences. By labeling skills, abilities, aptitudes and talents "intelligences," Gardner managed to create great excitement among educators who suddenly saw a way to spread the aura and prestige of "intelligence" to hitherto undreamed of areas. Thus hopping around and being a good gossip became forms of intelligence. Moreover, educators felt the need to wrap the many forms of intelligence around a specific educational task like teaching fractions, in order to stimulate each individual intelligence. Cognitive scientists have shown that children learn best when subjects are taught in the content's best modality.

It is important to keep in mind as a teacher that teaching is a great responsibility. It is a responsibility to the pupils, to the parents and to the citizenry that makes enormous financial sacrifices in the form of taxes. All too often, teachers and the educational establishment feel that they have complete license to indulge in wild experimentation with untested and unproven theories that waste the pupils' time, and then feel resentful if they are held accountable. Often these theories are proven failures but are adhered to in quasi-religious fashion. After all, religion is usually impervious to experience and evidence.

It is a responsibility to the pupils since after all they are the primary beneficiaries of education. At the lower levels, education must ensure that the pupils are proficient in reading, writing and arithmetic. These skills are fundamental to enable the pupils to succeed as they continue through elementary and secondary schools and later on through college. Too many entering college students lack basic writing skills and must spend time in remedial education. Even remedial education is often unable to correct deficiencies and ingrained bad habits.

Basic writing skills include the ability to spell correctly, the use of proper grammar, the use of punctuation marks in a logical fashion and the ability to write coherent sentences. It is also crucial that pupils learn how to identify parts of speech. Many spelling mistakes are due to the inability to distinguish between a verb and a noun, i.e. make up and makeup. Common mistakes like a confusion between "your" and "you're," "its" and "it's" are due to ignorance about basic grammar. Other examples are "there," "their" and "they're." It is shameful that students spend twelve years in school without mastering such a simple task. It would be a tiny part of my teaching philosophy to make sure that these simple tasks are mastered.

Another grave concern of mine is the de-emphasis of history and geography in the curriculum. As a result of curricular reform in the beginning decades of the 20th century spearheaded by such luminaries as Harold O. Rugg, history and geography became subsumed under the nebulous category of social studies. The danger of not specifically naming subject areas such as history and geography in the curriculum is that these subjects might then very well receive only a fragmentary and cursory treatment as evidenced by widespread ignorance in these areas. For example, many high school graduates believe Austria is Australia and are baffled when shown a map and asked to identify countries.

Much can be learned from educational psychology. For example, it has been shown that relevant prior knowledge is indispensable for learning new material (Beck et al., 1991). Often students lack useful background knowledge to understand text that takes this background knowledge for granted. A good teacher must be aware of this lack of background knowledge. Extraordinary insights can be gained from experiences with artificial intelligence and even computer programs designed to translate from one language to another. For example, one AI program started to build a small tower in mid air because it lacked the real-world knowledge of gravity. Computer translation programs cannot grasp textual and extra-textual context to evaluate and interpret the meaning of words to make sound judgments.

In math instruction, educational psychology has shown that a number sense and the concept of the mental number line are an indispensable prerequisite for math learning (Case & Okamoto, 1996). Teachers must be familiar with effective ways employed to correct such deficiencies.

The teaching profession is an exciting field for anyone who enjoys learning and has the capacity to inspire students to experience and share this enjoyment. Education is not only important to economic survival but it also immensely enriching.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Closing the gap

Two giants of education with differing views, Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch, are having an amicable conversation in search of common ground, and in the process are covering a lot of ground. It's all happening in a blog aptly titled Bridging Differences.

I am not totally convinced that finding common ground is always desirable. Yes, it sounds good. Maybe something positive comes out of it. However, there is the danger of moving away from one's sound position in order to bridge the gap.

The blog is open for comments. I took the opportunity to counter views that seem mistaken to me. Here are my most recent comments:

"The only way to counter the “testing and accountability” movement (which has failed miserably at improving our students’ learning)..."

You are a victim of a common confusion. Testing is the messenger who brings news of the state of learning. All that testing does it tell educationists that they have or have not succeeded in what they are supposed to do.

A thermometer analogy will immediately reveal the fallaciousness of your statement. Visualize an outdoor thermometer that shows the temperature to be five below zero and then imagine someone cursing that the thermometer has failed to raise the temperature to a cozy 75 degrees.

Posted by: instructivist January 27, 2008 9:53 PM

"Kids born to white-collar parents attend schools where—hey—if you can’t answer the lower-order questions, but are successful when answering questions that call for synthesis, comparison, etc., you’re creative and gifted!"

Don't worry about the white-collar parents' kids supposed ability to do synthesis and comparison. They can't synthesize and compare if there is nothing to synthesize and compare. The Bloom levels are inextricably linked. One level can't happen without the preceding level. You need ingredients to bake. You erroneously assume white-collar parents' kids can bake with thin air.

Posted by: instructivist January 27, 2008 10:07 PM

Thursday, January 24, 2008

TERC -- Parents rebel

Another parent group is formed to fight the fuzzy math plague. The fuzzy math program the parents are fighting is TERC (also known as Investigations).

What would it take to send those responsible for introducing these dubious programs packing?

The group's name is Teach Math Right

Monday, January 21, 2008

The pits

Depressing pictures of the book depository for Detroit schools.

(via Joanne Jacobs)

Gates wrecking ball

Propelled by Gates millions, Chicago's high schools are being transformed to conform to progressive/constructivist visions to save the disadvantaged. The transformation is a fantasy that will not save the disadvantaged. It will make them even more disadvantaged. The visions being implemented on a wholesale basis rest on misdiagnoses of the reasons for academic failings. The seeds for failure are planted in elementary and middle schools. What is needed is quality education and rigor in the grades preceding high school.

With respect to science education, Catherine Johnson of KTM observed: "I do recall David Klein once telling me that the situation in science is even worse than the situation in math." I am reproducing my response here:

The situation in science is indeed dismal. Here in Chicago, constructivist ways in science called inquiry (FOSS, STC, IES, SALI, IEY) are largely the norm up to eighth grade, especially in failing schools (most of them). The educationist motto seems to be: If poison makes them sick, give them more poison.

You can also tell something is fishy when acronyms proliferate (alphabet soup proliferation). For example, science for 8th grade is IEY which stands for Issues, Evidence and You.

The HUGE SCANDAL in my view is that most high schools here in Chicago are being converted to constructivism (inquiry). It's a Gates idea called high school transformation. Gates dangled millions in front of the mayor and board who immediately jumped. A Gates agent was made executive director of the transformation project. That means academic textbooks go in the garbage and community projects are the new forms of learning science.

This scandal is taking place unnoticed by the local media. It raises the question whether one wealthy individual should be allowed to implement his fantasy and wreck high schools which after all are public entities. Resistance from school administrators and teachers is ignored. The transformation is imposed from above by fiat.

Schools can select from two or three virtually identical inquiry programs the way the politburo used to put up two or three apparatchiks as the only choice in an election. Even that pseudo choice is constrained in some cases. Now I hear that the board abolished earth science as a graduation requirement to accomodate the Gates fantasy. Two of the three pseudo choices don't even have earth science.

I wrote a comment I posted on the district299 blog that deals with Chicago ed issues. I reproduce it here (note what is in store for high school math):

The whole high-school transformation project looks like a stealth operation, really a coup. There is no HST website, no transparency. The HST office is unable to provide information on newly targeted high schools. The only (spotty) information is through the grapevine.

The project pretends to be democratic, but it is a sham. Schools can volunteer the way the Chinese Communists can produce "volunteers" en masse. It's also unclear what the total number of targeted HS is. A CPS document I have talks about three waves of 14, 15 and 20 schools respectively, making it a total of 49 HS. Other sources put the number higher.

Then there is the question of effectiveness. Will the new nostrums really improve academic achievement? Alexander Russo asks the perfect question: "Are things any better at the schools that started doing HST a couple of years ago?" There should already be evidence showing whether the nostrums are working. Why is that evidence or lack of evidence not discussed? It would have been prudent to run pilots before embarking on wholesale, highly questionable transformation. I can only conclude it wasn't done because it would interfere with putting this fantasy in place. Hence the pseudo-democratic stealth operation.

Targeted schools get to choose one of two or three IDSs. IDS stands for Instructional Development System and incorporates six "change levers" (note the nebulous, new-age lingo). IDSs are the heart of the nostrum and are described as the pillars of the core instructional strategy. The actual IDSs are simply progressive/constructivist, mainly NSF-supported, tracts that are trying to do to HS what's been done to elementary and middle schools with disastrous results.

The IDS choices in math are Agile Mind and Cognitive Tutor. In science there are three pseudo-choices: Inquiry to Build Content, Content to Build Inquiry and Meaningful Science through Inquiry. These are vastly stripped of content but they say they make up for this lack of content by motivating students to go deep. The motivation is said to come from touching the lives of students.

Content can take a back seat since according to the "Foundational principles for IDS instruction" the goal is inquiry and engaged learning. Here the "principle" says: "Focus is on problem solving, reasoning, critical thinking. Students seek their own knowledge, formulate arguments. Activities should maximize connection to student lives." How much critical thinking can go on without much to think about is anybody's guess.

My view is that the HST project is another instance of barking up the wrong tree. A lot of the disadvantaged coming from the elementary and middle grades are disastrously ill-prepared for HS. As a middle grades teacher I see these horrific deficiencies all the time. Those concerned with the success of the disadvantaged need to focus on what comes before high school.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Deconstructing constructivism

Most prospective teachers seeking certification must go through education schools where they get bombarded with the rhetoric of progressive/constructivist education, the dominant ed school ideology. Here is an antidote to this mind-numbing assault written by Martin Kozloff (a/k/a Prof. Plum), an education professor who is in a distinct minority. In his inimitable way, Prof. Plum deconstructs ed school piffle point by point in Fads and Flapdoodle vs. Serious Instruction.

Here a few excerpts:

Fads and Flapdoodle

The nonsense below has for about 100 years been foisted on gullible education students and public schools by the dominant education establishment, run by so-called “progressive” educators in ed schools, state departments of public instruction, curriculum organizations (such as International Reading Association, National Council for Teachers of English), organizations that certify ed schools (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education), and unions (National Education Association).

No Fads. Serious Instruction.

The tested, true, and effective ideas, below, are the minority position in the field of education, and are advocated by the so-called anti-establishment, which supports traditional forms of instruction guided by scientific research.

If you believe and act on the following tested and valid ideas, you’ll be on the road to Master Teacher; and you’ll be a blessing to your students.

2. “Education theorists---Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey, Gardner---provide useful information on how to teach.”

2. Education theorists---Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey, Gardner---provide next to NOTHING useful on how to teach.

Their ideas are vague (it’s not clear what you’re supposed to do), over-generalized (don’t apply to your students), plain wrong, or totally insane.

“What would Dewey do?”

Who cares?

3. “Be guided by the following ideas: child-centered and student-centered, holistic, natural, authentic, learning styles, multiple intelligence, brain-based instruction, developmentally appropriate practices, best practices, etc.”

3. DO NOT be guided by these ideas. These ideas are LOONEY. They’re one step away from psychotic. In any other field they’d be considered fraud.

[See number 2 at the end.]

• There is NO scientific research to support them.
• They will be NO help at all to you.
• These ideas reflect the preferences of education professors---not science, not reality.
• The more you use these terms, the dumber and you get and the less effectively you teach.

b. “Instruction should be holistic. For example, you should teach spelling, reading, and writing at the same time.”

b. The word “holistic” is new-age mind slop. Like “holistic healing.”

• Complex skills DO consist of simpler skill elements. It’s essential that students learn these first.
• You can’t solve math word problems if you don’t know the basic math operations, such as addition and multiplication.
• You can’t write or spell if you can’t read words. So, what should you teach first?

g. “You can’t transmit knowledge. Students must construct knowledge. Therefore, most learning and instruction should be in the form of inquiry and discovery.”

g. “The battles at Lexington and Concord were on April 18, 1775.”

• I believe I just transmitted knowledge.

• Persons who talk about students constructing knowledge have no idea what this even means. Are they mind readers?

• The SANE way to look at learning is this: Teachers present examples and students induce (figure out) the general idea (concept, rule, routine) that is revealed by the examples. Teachers can also TELL students a concept, rule, or routine, and then substantiate this with examples.

• There’s a lot of research showing that students learn MORE and learn faster when the teacher teaches in an explicit and direct way, rather than when students try to discover knowledge.

• What does it even mean---discover knowledge?

“Hey, guys, I discovered reading!!”

• Discovery and inquiry are the worst possible ways to teach essential skills (reading, math) to disadvantaged students.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Constructing misconceptions

A core tenet of the progressive/constructivist education creed is that students must construct their own knowledge. For this reason, according to the creed, teachers should not impart knowledge or provide explicit instruction. A teacher should merely be a guide on the side instead of a sage on the stage, as the rhyming slogans of the creed have it.

I was recently watching a video called A Private Universe produced by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics two decades ago that casts doubt on the wisdom of the knowledge construction dogma. The video shows students who were asked to explain what causes the seasons and the phases of the moon. From Harvard graduates to bright freshman, the explanations were all wrong. In other words, all these students were laboring under misconceptions.

The lesson here is that constructing one's own knowledge in areas like science has a great potential of leading to false beliefs. Many of these students probably had received explicit instruction from knowledgeable teachers and yet tenaciously persisted in constructing their own false knowledge. The way to correct these misconceptions cannot possibly be more construction of one's own knowledge as mandated by the creed, but teacher-centered ongoing diagnoses of the many misconceptions and heavy doses of explicit instruction with constant student feedback.

Here is how the producers describe the video:

With its famous opening scene at a Harvard graduation, this classic of education research brings into sharp focus the dilemma facing all educators: Why don’t even the brightest students truly grasp basic science concepts? This award-winning program traces the problem through interviews with Harvard graduates and their professors, as well as with a bright ninth-grader who has some confused ideas about the orbits of the planets. Equally useful for education methods classes, teacher workshops, and presentations to the public, A Private Universe is an essential resource for science and methodology teachers.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Edubabble fluency

When even ed schools like Appalachian State’s ed school are fluent in edubabble, then you know "progressive" education has arrived.

From Teaching Teachers How Not to Teach -- Do our schools of education really do good a job of training teachers?

One sign of that contagion is the mission statements and “conceptual frameworks” of the education schools in the state. Read them and you’ll see that progressive theory controls. At Appalachian State’s Reich School of Education, for instance, the conceptual framework says:

"We believe that theory should guide practice in all aspects of our work. While we use a variety of theoretical perspectives in the preparation of educators, socio-cultural and constructivist perspectives … are central to guiding our teaching and learning. Our core conceptualization of learning and knowing – that learning is a function of the social and cultural contexts in which it occurs (i.e., it is situated) and that knowledge is actively constructed – emerges from the intersection of these two perspectives."

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Old new-fangled skills

An organization dedicated to "infusing 21st century skills into education" commissioned a poll that had the vast majority of voters clamoring for supposedly new-fangled skills:

The national poll was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Peter D. Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Partnership for 21stCentury Skills.

Among the other key findings:

• Eighty-eight percent of voters say they believe that schools can and should incorporate 21st century skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving skills, computer and technology skills, and communication and self-direction skills into their curriculum.

I could swear I heard these skills, particularly critical thinking and problem-solving skills, being bandied about for the better part of the 20th century, which led me to believe they are 20th century skills. Apparently, I was in error.

An ode to progressive education.

Who can compete with all that fun as educators prepare the young for their world? See the kiddies happily dancing into the world of tomorrow. However, how sawing wood and pushing toy trucks around can help you learn math or history is not explained.

Meet Kilpatrick, Bagley (a critic of progressive education) and Dewey himself. I think this video is from the 40s.

Teachers speak out on NCLB

In this report by John Merrow of PBS, celebrated teachers speak out against NCLB. The criticisms range from unrealistic expectations to the narrowness of tests. The thrust of the opposition to tests seems to be that the students have amazing abilities that are not captured by the tests. So what if students fail to demonstrate minimal proficiency. There are always these ineffable amazing abilities.

I also like one teacher's plaint that instead of asking for right answers we should ask students to think. Yeah, those false dichotomies again that seem to be an educationist staple. Isn't it possible that thinking could lead to the right answers or that asking for correct answers can stimulate thinking? Of course, this question is purely rhetorical.

Click on "Watch this program online now" at the Merrow Report page to see the video clip.