J has recently come home with his best report card ever: all As and Bs; more As than Bs. Now a high school junior, he has finally made the honor roll.
These grade improvements are partly a function of J's particular course roster. This semester he happens to have only one language-intensive class. Physics, AB Calculus, and Java programming all come naturally to him, and he loses points mainly when he leaves out verbal explanations, which, mercifully, are only required in physics, and only for lab reports. He's also shining (nay, sweating!) in PE class, and doing fine in Health--where I've opted him out of sex ed in an attempt to keep that particular can of mischievous worms as tightly sealed as possible--for as long as possible.
Also fostering J's grade improvements is a better-than-ever communication between home and school, with teachers who respond immediately to email and an online SchoolNet system that lets me see weekly assignments and grade reports. There must be thousands upon thousands of autism parents whose frustrations are eased, and whose children's performances in school are improving, as schools put these systems in place. Indeed, as I write this I realize that, for all my criticisms of technology in the classroom, this particular deployment is an unequivocal boon--for everyone, really.
But a third factor behind J's grade improvements are the extrinsic rewards I now give him based on what I learn from these weekly SchoolNet reports. In order to earn a new ceiling fan visit, or a dollar, or an extra sign language signing of the number two (his favorite number), he has to have an A average in his three best academic subjects. As a result, the responsibility he's shown for writing down his assignments, doing them thoroughly, and remembering to turn them in has increased substantially.
Of course, J's capacity for responsibility has also grown along with his growing maturity. And when the goal is something more important to him than good grades, he doesn't need extrinsic rewards. I recently walked into the kitchen to find him standing over a systematically laid out row of ingredients, the cookbook open to a recipe for ginger bread cookies. I endorsed his project (though he hadn't asked my permission), and left the kitchen confident that he could assemble the mixer and follow the recipe. When I returned, he had balled up the dough and was putting it in the refrigerator to chill. (He was less motivated to clean up his mess).
Two days ago, a package arrived in the mail which he eagerly grabbed from my hands, anticipating correctly what it contained. Apparently his battery recharger had stopped working ahead of its warranty, and here was the replacement. He showed me the receipt that accompanied it, which indicated no new charges, and explained that he'd filled out a replacement form online, complete with the requisite information about the unexpired warranty.
It's wonderful to see this wild child of mine becoming so responsible. But, like so many teenagers, he only looks so far into the future. And, though I've heard many armchair experts tell parents and teachers that extrinsic rewards are bad, I suspect that the incentives I give J to earn good grades do more than increase the prospects of his future, more responsible self. Those incentives also, I suspect, help J acquire habits that help him become that more responsible self, as he gradually internalizes the best of his fans-twos-and-dollars-driven behaviors.
Sunday, December 8, 2013
J has recently come home with his best report card ever: all As and Bs; more As than Bs. Now a high school junior, he has finally made the honor roll.
Friday, December 6, 2013
The totality of rational expression addition and subtraction problems in Wentworth's New School Algebra (published in 1898) vs. the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project Algebra (published in 2002).
I. From Wentworth's New School Algebra, pp. 133, 134, 135, 137 [click to enlarge]:
II. From The University of Chicago Math Project Algebra, p. 335 336 341 343 [click to enlarge]
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
This is the question I'd like to ask certain members of the armchair class--namely, those who argue vigorously against the existence of an established body of facts that all children should learn.
Those who actually go out into the field and plumb the depths of knowledge of our high school graduates may have a different answer. As a recent article in the Philadelphia reports:
When Rhonda Fink-Whitman decided to test college students' knowledge of the Holocaust, lugging a video camera to four local campuses, she discovered some amazing facts:
Adolf Hitler was the leader of Amsterdam. Josef Mengele was an author. And JFK led the Allies during World War II, assisted by an American Army general named Winston Churchill. Hardly any students had heard of the Holocaust, the Nazis' systematic murder of six million Jews.
And when her questions turned to the Night of Broken Glass, the Nuremberg Trials, or the meaning of the phrase the Final Solution, forget it.Some of the Pennsylvania legislators with whom Fink-Whitman has consulted would like to address this cluelessness by mandating Holocaust instruction in Pennsylvania's public schools. But Pennsylvania already mandates world history, and the approved world history textbooks, not so surprisingly, do cover the Holocaust. So perhaps instead the state could stipulate that teachers not skip entire chapters in world history textbooks.
One might also ask teachers to hold students responsible for actually internalizing, as opposed to merely appreciating, the core content of these textbooks by assigning fewer projects and power point presentations, and more (gasp!) quizzes and tests that require (shudder!) students to recall facts at the risk of (horrors!) not earning a decent grade in the course.
After all, as Fink-Whitman's findings suggests, it's just possible that the Holocaust isn't the only major event about which today's high school students have learned next to nothing that's actually true:
In September, she visited Temple, Drexel, and Pennsylvania State Universities and the University of Pennsylvania, stopping students at random to ask basic questions.
What was the Holocaust?However elusive Historical Truth is, do we really want it to be this elusive? However oppressive it is for authorities to impose facts on students, do we really want students to enjoy lives that are this fact-free? However arbitrary the choice of what to include in a cannon of knowledge for mandatory history instruction, might there, just possibly, be some things that we don't want ever to lose to history?
"The Holocaust, um, I'm on the spot now," answered a Temple student.
Where did the Holocaust happen?
"I have no idea," responded a Penn State student. "Europe?"
How long ago was it?
"Was that like 1800?" answered a Penn student. "I want to say 300 years ago."
The name Eisenhower was a mystery. Students didn't know why U.S. troops invaded Normandy, much less where it is.
"It's over near England and Germany and all that jazz," a Temple student offered.
Monday, December 2, 2013
A common slogan of the school-of-life, experiential-learning-based Unschooling Movement is Mark Twain’s “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” (See, for example, here.)
And, indeed, it’s natural to picture Mark Twain getting his real education first as a Tom Sawyer-like boy playing hooky along the banks of the Mississippi, and then, after dropping out of school at the age of 11, as a printer's apprentice, a steamboat pilot, and a silver miner out in Nevada. But what this narrative leaves out is what Twain did when he wasn’t at work. According to his Wikipedia entry, Twain “educated himself in public libraries in the evenings, finding wider information than at a conventional school.”
Wider information than at a conventional school: this casts Twain’s famous adage in a whole new light. Instead of seeing him rafting or steamboating down the Missippi, we now see him sitting at a lamp-lit library table, engrossed in Carlyle’s French Revolution or William Edward Hartpole Lecky’s History of European Morals.
Even Tom Sawyer, who, when asked by his Sunday school teacher for the names of the first two apostles, famously calls out “David and Goliath,” is better read than many students today. Here he is playing hooky with his friend, quoting lines memorized from a book about the adventures of Robinhood:
Just here the blast of a toy tin trumpet came faintly down the green aisles of the forest. Tom flung off his jacket and trousers, turned a suspender into a belt, raked away some brush behind the rotten log, disclosing a rude bow and arrow, a lath sword and a tin trumpet, and in a moment had seized these things and bounded away, barelegged, with fluttering shirt. He presently halted under a great elm, blew an answering blast, and then began to tiptoe and look warily out, this way and that. He said cautiously—to an imaginary company:Later:
"Hold, my merry men! Keep hid till I blow."
Now appeared Joe Harper, as airily clad and elaborately armed as Tom. Tom called:
"Hold! Who comes here into Sherwood Forest without my pass?"
"Guy of Guisborne wants no man's pass. Who art thou that—that—"
"Dares to hold such language," said Tom, prompting—for they talked "by the book," from memory.
"Who art thou that dares to hold such language?"
"I, indeed! I am Robin Hood, as thy caitiff carcase soon shall know."
"Then art thou indeed that famous outlaw? Right gladly will I dispute with thee the passes of the merry wood. Have at thee!"
The boys dressed themselves, hid their accoutrements, and went off grieving that there were no outlaws any more, and wondering what modern civilization could claim to have done to compensate for their loss. They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.Indeed.
In an age in which presidents leave no child behind and compulsory education extends through age 16, a more up-to-date image of a child not letting school interfere with his education shows that child secretly reading Gulliver’s Travels or Popular Science behind his Pearson Leveled Reader, his Everyday Math Student Math Journal—or (if possible) his Common Core Ipad Initiative tablet.
In a recent blog post, Joanne Jacobs writes:
I went through school before the invention of “gifted and talented education.” There was no tracking till high school. I read in class, which made it possible to go through 10 books every two weeks. (When the library gave us three weeks, I started reading longer books.) It’s the core of my education.Most of the best educated people here in America were and are voracious independent readers, and most of what they read is (or was) in addition to, or instead of, what’s assigned at school. We might think of accomplished people who “didn't let school interfere” as free-spirited geniuses who spent their youths tinkering and daydreaming. But, for most of them, book learning was key, and the careful, organized reading and rereading, concentration, and recall practice that this requires, requires, in turn, great discipline.
Nor is reading the only way in which those who become highly educated in spite of school show, in fact, much more discipline than those who merely pay the kind of attention, and do the kind of work, that classroom teachers expect of them. I know mathematicians who taught themselves calculus in middle school; writers who wrote and self-edited notebook upon notebook of prose as tweens; and painters who, as teenagers, painstakingly copied scores of great paintings—all on their own initiative. In the process, these people also experience more structure and direct instruction that most kids do in today's classrooms.
As Mike S writes in his comment on Joanne Jacobs’ post about the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman:
Feynman was terribly bored in high school physics, and so his teacher took him aside and gave him a graduate level book on advanced calculus. Feynman would ignore the class and sit off to the side working through the extremely difficult problem sets.Nor do autodidacts eschew things like regurgitation and drill. Benjamin Franklin reports teaching himself how to write by reconstructing model texts from memory; other polymaths I know regularly use flashcards.
Ironically, at a time in which schools claim to be following child-centered learning principles, it’s getting harder and harder for children to not let school interfere with their education. New obstacles include:
1. Increased homework loads, increased busywork within those homework assignments (such that smart kids can’t just breeze through them quickly), the growing influence of homework completion (as opposed to final exam grades) on course grades, and the growing competition for spots at the best colleges. All these make it harder for those who aspire to the top colleges to find time for extra-curricular activities.
2. The rise of pod-based seating arrangements, hands-on and group-based activities, teachers circulating through the classroom instead of mostly standing at the front of it, and the decline of textbooks and workbooks. All these make it harder to sneak your own books behind those textbooks and workbooks and secretly learn on your own.
3. The growing resistance to letting kids work independently and get ahead of their peers academically. Very few teachers today would do for a budding science genius what Feynman’s teacher did for him.
The rise of computers and tablets in the classroom, you might think, would open up broad new realms for self-teaching—assuming the school's firewall doesn't block information-rich sites like Wikipedia. All the distractions of the Internet, however, make Internet-based self-teaching workable only for the most self-disciplined of autodidacts. Also, classroom technology is increasingly turning grade school classrooms into Panopticons in which the teacher can monitor everything that goes on. We have software that projects onto the teacher’s desktop computer what’s happening on every student’s screen, and we have software in the works that tracks where students are looking and what kinds of facial expressions they are displaying in response.
In short, however student-centered our schools, and our un-schools, claim to be, it's getting harder and harder for today's kids to not them interfere with their education.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
If your child has a teacher who focuses on sight words and story context at the expense of phonics, ask how s/he'd prefer to learn how to read this page out loud.
(1) By learning which sound(s) each letter stands for.
(2) By learning these words as holistic graphical patterns that correspond to particular spoken words.
(A page from a children's book written in the Georgian alphabet.)
Here in America, many of today's educators have no personal experience with what it takes to master a foreign language. As a result, they often fail to appreciate what kinds of instruction English Language Learners need in order to master English.
Even fewer of our educators have personal experience with what it takes to master a truly foreign alphabet like Georgian or Armenian. (Greek and Cyrillic don't count as truly foreign: these alphabets bear too many resemblances to our own). Nor do most people remember what it took for them, back in early childhood, to master the alphabets of their native languages. As a result, they often fail to appreciate what kinds of instruction novice readers need in order to master the English writing system.
Our teacher training programs are supposed to be addressing this, but somehow the message still hasn't spread sufficiently far and wide. In a comment on an earlier post, C_T cites a study showing that only 47% of education colleges were making phonics instruction part of their required coursework for elementary ed majors.
Some have argued against a primarily phonics-based approach for English by citing all the unusual spellings that violate phonics. But even in English writing the rules are far more widespread than the exceptions, and even when it comes to the words with the most unphonetic spellings, like "through," "talk," "bread," "nation," or "psycho," you're still much better off sounding the word out phonetically than memorizing its graphical appearance.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
“Cooking the Turkey”Presumably this discussion does not cause anyone to wish that Thanksgiving break would begin as soon as possible.
A third grade class is beginning to work with multiplication. The purpose of this lesson is to use an open-ended investigation to develop students’ ideas, strategies, and models for multiplication through a problem that is based in a familiar context.
Background: On the previous day, the teacher had posed a real-life problem to the class for which she requested their assistance. The teacher told the students that she had invited a large group of people over to her house for Thanksgiving dinner. The problem she posed was to find out how much it would cost to buy a large turkey (24 pounds) if it costs $1.25 per pound. The students discussed and solved this problem in pairs and then reported out their solutions and solutions methods to the whole group.
Launching the problem: ...The teacher again gathers the class together on the rug and poses a second, related turkey problem. The teacher wants to make sure her dinner is cooked properly. According to her favorite cookbook, a turkey of this size should cook for 15 minutes per pound. She again sends the students off to work in pairs or threes to solve this problem. Students may use any strategy or approach they choose and must record their solution and their method on a large sheet of poster paper that will later be shared with the class.
Students at work: Four groups of students are seen working on the problem.
1. Hannah M. and Julia: They split 15 into 10 and 5 and add groups of 10 and groups of 5 separately.
2. Kenneth, Marlon, and Sam: They keep track of the number of pounds each fifteen minutes represents and skip count by 15s in a list that resembles a table when they include their labels.
3. May and Rafe: They use a doubling and halving strategy (15 + 15 = 30 and 24 ÷ 2 = 12)
4. Nate and Nellie: They put two fifteens together to make thirty minutes and count by that group. They count by 30s (minutes) while simultaneously counting by 2s (pounds).
Students discuss solutions: After students have solved the problem and created posters showing their solutions and strategies, the teacher brings the group back together on the rug and asks some groups to share with the class. This portion of the class is called the Math Congress.
We see Amber and Vicky present their poster. After they share, the teacher promotes discussion of their method by asking other students to explain Amber and Vicky’s method. Next the teacher chooses Marlon, Kenneth, and Sam to present because she sees a connection between their method and the method used by Amber and Vicky. Finally, she asks May and Rafe to share because their method used a “shortcut” that included an important mathematical idea: the inverse relationship between doubling and halving. Since other students had not used this thinking and were somewhat confused by it, the teacher allowed this discussion to go longer than the others until many students indicated that they understood the strategy.
Evidence of engaging students with the mathematics content
The teacher chose a scenario from a real (or at least believable) context to frame the problem. The need to buy and cook food for a large group is a situation that students have likely encountered and/or can relate to. The use of a real cookbook increases student engagement as does the notion that she is personally seeking students’ help to solve her real-life problem.
Evidence that the students are engaged can be seen in their conversations both during the work time and during the math congress. During the math congress the teacher says, “There is something similar between yours and Amber and Victoria’s [method]” but she does not tell them what the similarity is. Instead she engages them in the process of identifying the connection.
Evidence of creating an environment conducive to learning
Students work in pairs or small groups assigned by the teacher to solve the problem. Purposeful partner selection minimizes the likelihood that any students will be excluded from the process. By gathering students together on the rug for the posing of the problem as well as the subsequent discussion, the teacher creates a friendly atmosphere that is inclusive and engaging. During the student sharing, the teacher sits on the floor as a member of the classroom community. This increases the student-to-student interaction and diminishes the tendency for the conversation to be teacher-dominated. She offers encouragement that is authentic and based on students’ work and conversations. For example, after listening to and then restating Hannah M. and Julia’s approach she said, “You guys have a really good idea here.”
Evidence of ensuring access for all students
Because the problem is posed in a context that students can relate to, there are many access points for students. The teacher does not specify a solution strategy nor does she put a time-limit on students. In her conversations with individual groups and during the math congress, she very often orchestrates the discussion in a way that ensures all students stay engaged. For example when working with Nate and Nellie, she asks Nellie about what Nate had said, “Do you understand what he’s doing?”
During the math congress she offers multiple opportunities for different students to restate or rephrase the explanations that others have given. She also allows and encourages student-student questions, particularly when students are sharing with the class. The classroom climate appears to be one in which questions are welcomed and students are expected to interact respectfully.
Evidence of use questioning to monitor and promote understanding
The classroom interactions that the teacher has with students are characterized by her listening and asking questions. She rarely makes a statement, and when she does it is often to paraphrase or restate the idea that a student has shared.
Evidence of helping students make sense of the mathematics content
The teacher uses the context of the problem to make sure students understand the results their mathematical methods produce. For example, after Vicky and Amber share their solution, the teacher asks, “And what is the 360?” The teacher returns to the context of the problem to make sure the students understand the relationship of the numerical answer they have found and the situation of the problem.
During the whole class sharing, the teacher purposefully chooses the students who will share and the order in which they will share to encourage connections between methods. For example, she has Marlon, Kenneth, and Sam present after Amber and Vicky because she wants to reinforce the connection between jumps on the number line and a skip counting strategy.
Since one pair of students used a strategy that involves a deeper level of mathematical content knowledge (doubling and halving) the teacher makes a point to have that group share. She introduces their approach by saying, “And I would like May and Rafe to come up. And May and Rafe came up with an interesting shortcut, and I’d like you to explain.” The discussion that follows their presentation causes the rest of the class to interact with and explain this strategy and the mathematics that underlie it.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
Ironically, despite their enormous differences, both John Elder Robison and the leadership of Autism Speaks share a couple of legitimate concerns: insufficient funds for treatment and accommodations, as compared with funding for early detection and etiology--in what reminds me of the education establishment’s obsession with assessment at the expense of teaching.
As another autism self-advocate, Ari Ne'eman, President, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, has observed:
Of the approximately $217 million dollars that the National Institutes of Health(NIH) invested in autism research in 2010 (the most recent year for which data is available), only a meager 2.45% went towards improving the quality of services and supports available to Autistic people and our families. Only 1.5% went towards research that addresses the needs of Autistic adults. When compared to research on questions of causation, etiology and biology and diagnosis, the percentage of the autism research agenda focused on the actual needs of Autistic people in order to improve their quality of life is miniscule.Of course, autism researchers can counter that early detection and etiology research will lead to better interventions and cures. One hears similar promises from the education establishment. Time will tell.
Autism advocates don’t necessarily have the right priorities either. Until very recently one of the top priorities of Autism Speaks was more research and action on the long-discredited vaccine theory. Then there are those who advocate indiscriminantly for potentially problematic accommodations like full inclusion or facilitated communication systems that potentially reduce the incentive to actually teach communication skills or instruct students at their instructional level.
Thinking about these tensions between autism self-advocates and autism parents, on the one hand, and autism advocates and autism researchers, on the other, has me wondering what my priorities would be if--ah, if only!--I were in charge of everything. And this has me thinking about what the most under-emphasized priorities are.
When it comes to the most challenging cases, I would say we need many more professional caregivers; more financial support and regular and extended respite care for families; and higher quality lifelong care facilities to relieve the burden from aging parents and younger siblings. No family should have to go through what Josh Greenfeld’s family, and many others, have gone through, psychologically, physically, and financially.
Therapeutically, we need more linguistically-informed language interventions that, wherever possible, go beyond the rote memorization of single words and canned phrases, and free children, as much as possible, from dependency on Alternative Augmentative Communication systems--particularly the more linguistically limited or communicatively misleading of such systems.
For higher functioning children, we need academic instruction that disentangles reading comprehension and writing challenges from math and science challenges, and also disentangles social and organizational challenges from academic challenges. We need to address bullying much more effectively than we do now, among other things allowing kids to opt out of school-based group activities and work independently. Outside of school, we need social skills groups that are willing to include kids that have behavior problems. Related to this, in addition to the full inclusion option, more school districts should offer self-contained classrooms specifically for high functioning autistic students—an option I might have chosen for J, had it existed. Post-high school, there should be an expansion of online degree programs—particularly suitable to those for whom the brick and mortar aspects of colleges are more intimidating than enriching.
One key priority that I don’t need to emphasize, because others have done so already, has to do with meaningful employment. More and more companies are now specifically seek out and harnessing the special skills of adults with autism. For all the ups and downs of research, advocacy, and educational accommodations, this particular development, for some of us in the autism community, has been one of the most promising of all.