Wednesday, May 25, 2016

News flash: how interesting and curious you are also matters!

It’s long been fashionable to downplay the significance of IQ—though, from the breathlessness of each new article about how unimportant IQ is, you’d never guess just how old this news is. Hand in hand with these constant revelations are revelations about the importance of “non-cognitive” skills--emotional intelligence, the ability to cooperative with others, grit. Promoters of these skills seem to feel that it’s news to the rest of us that how hard we work and how well we get along with others significantly affect our success in college, career, and life.

Buried in all of this codified common sense is another assumption: that all skills fall into one of two categories: those measured by IQ /SAT/ACT aptitude tests, on the one hand, and “non-cognitive” skills, on the other. But there are plenty of cognitive skills that aren’t measured by IQ and other aptitude tests.

What most IQ tests measure is how quickly you access basic, non-complex information—e.g., basic facts, single vocabulary words---and how quickly you perform non-complex operations—repeating digits, reversing digits, doing arithmetic, remembering and reproducing geometric configurations, copying and identifying patterns. IQ measures the how well your brain functions as a simple computer: its long term memory storage and access, its processing speed. With most IQ tests, the biggest determiners of your score are how much vocabulary you’ve memorized, how big your short-term memory buffer is, your basic spatial reasoning and pattern recognition skills, and how fast you process information.

While plenty of cognitive skills can be reduced to these factors, many cannot. IQ (and aptitude tests more generally) don’t measure the volume, organization, and connectedness of the facts you know, which vary widely from person to person. Nor do aptitude tests measure how interesting and creative your questions and your ideas are—which also varies widely from person to person. While these skills are partly a function of memory, processing speed, and pattern recognitions, they’re also a function of things like:

--attention and observation: how much of the world around you do you sponge up?

--curiosity: do you notice what you don’t know and care enough to seek answers—asking, listening, reading widely and in depth?

--your patterns of reflecting later on what you learned earlier (regular recall and reflection promotes long term memory)

--the breadth of topics your mind ranges over: does it brood on a narrow range of fixed topics or does it wander widely and to new places?

--the breadth of new connections—logical, analogical, relational—that your mind makes among the things it ranges over.

If we need to be reminded that how hard we work and how well we get along with others affect our success in life, perhaps we also need to be reminded that how knowledgeable, curious, and intellectually creative and interesting we are matter as well.

And perhaps our schools should be exploring not just whether they can promote grit and socio-emotional learning, but also whether they can promote, say, curiosity?

After all, most kids are born curious, and many famously go on to lose that curiosity during their school years—at least during the hours they spend in classrooms. Maybe, just maybe, there’s something our schools could do about that.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Another autism miracle cure!

Here we go again! Yet another child who "has autism"--and a normal mind "locked inside." From this past week's Washington Post:

For the first 14 and a half years of Gordy’s life, Evan and Dara Baylinson had no reason to think their son could comprehend anything they said: He had never spoken, and he couldn’t really emote. They worried aloud about his future, not filtering what they said, because they didn’t think he understood. 
But Gordy, it now appears, was absorbing everything.
“My brain, which is much like yours, knows what it wants and how to make that clear,” he wrote in a letter he sent this month to a police officer. “My body, which is much like a drunken, almost six-foot toddler, resists.” 
He typed each letter one at a time with his right index finger. No one coached him, edited his words or told him what to say, according to his parents and therapist. After two one-hour sessions, he had written a nearly 400-word note.  
“This letter is not a cry for pity, pity is not what I’m looking for,” he wrote. “I love myself just the way I am, drunken toddler body and all. This letter is, however, a cry for attention, recognition and acceptance.” 
Unbeknownst to his parents for so many years, their son was a beautiful writer with a lot to say.
The usual trappings are in place: an expensive, unproven, Guru-driven technique; a specific"therapist" who is apparently present for all the child's communications; a keyboard that for some reason has to be held up for the child instead of being placed on a stand; letters that for some reason have to be read out loud to the child "as he types." And a reporter who assures us that the therapist doesn't "visibly prompt him or move the keyboard."

With no video to watch--despite the fact that the Washington Post often does accompany stories with videos--I can't rule out that Gordy's communications are his. But if they are, then there's something I can rule out:  namely, that Gordy is actually autistic.

That's because, in just a year and a half of practice with productive language, Gordy's verbal exchanges (assuming they're indeed his) are more social, introspective, and empathetic than what we find even among the highest functioning individuals with autism. Gordy--if it's indeed him--is, for example, producing far more socially and emotionally sensitive utterances than what Temple Grandin--one of world's highest functioning individuals with autism--has exhibited after about fifty times as many years of practice:
When Gordy answered several questions from a reporter, he sat quietly, showing no external signs of all that he was feeling. But his answers showed he feels profoundly.
Why did you write your letter?

Meghann [his therapist] suggested it and I’m so glad, it was something my entire being felt compelled to do.

Why did you feel so strongly about it?

I’ve heard too many tragic stories of the mistreatment and mishandling of autistics due to lack of knowledge. It breaks my heart because I know no one is truly at fault.

Are you excited to meet everyone on Friday?

Absolutely, I never expected this but I’m jumping around like a madman inside.

What is your favorite thing to do?

I love learning new things, iPads, I love communicating and typing with this gal on my right.
We'll probably never know what's really going on here. But two things are clear:

1. even if this is a miraculous communication breakthrough, it isn't an autism miracle cure

2. it is highly unprofessional, and highly irresponsible to all who are touched by autism, to report on it as such.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Math problems of the week: Common Core-inspired open-ended test questions

Sample 3rd grade open ended test question from the State of New York's EngageNY.

First, the question and the associated Common Core Goal:


Next, the "Extended Rationale":


Next, five sample answers:








Extra Credit:

The question is worth 3 points. Given the Common Core Goal and the Extended Rationale, provide a score for each of these questions.

(I'll post EngageNY's scores for these in a few days.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Grammar: everywhere--and nowhere

Grammar is dry and soporific; it’s also hip and deep. It is overlooked; and it is found everywhere. Actual grammar gets little publicity; false sightings are rampant.

A recent false sighting: the supposed (hip and deep) “grammar” of emoticons. Then there’s the supposed grammar of prairie dogs, and that of ornamentation.

The fact that something occurs in a sequence does not make it a grammar—particularly if that sequence is fixed:




Actual grammar is structure; it’s a set of iterative rules for grouping and ordering elements. E.g.:
A sentence consists of optional modifiers plus noun phrase plus verb phrase 
A verb phrase consists of a verb plus optional noun phrases plus optional prepositional phrases plus optional modifiers 
A prepositional phrase consists of a preposition plus a noun phrase 
A noun phrase consists of an article plus optional adjective phrases plus a noun plus optional modifiers 
An adjective phrase consists of an optional adverb plus an adjective 
And so on…
Thus even a relatively simple sentence derives from multiple rules and has structure:
[The quick brown fox] jumped [over [the lazy [prairie dog]]].
Grammars aren't limited to human languages; consider math, e.g., simple algebra:
An expression consists of a list of simple or complex terms connected by plus and/or minus symbols 
A simple term consists of a single number or variable 
A complex term can consist of simple terms connected by times and or division symbols, or parenthesized expressions connected by times and division symbols.
A small set of unstructured symbol sequences, or unstructured sequences of animal calls, is only a grammar in the most degenerate sense—however hip an deep it sounds to call it grammar.

Then there’s the dry, soporific version of “grammar”: what is actually punctuation, spelling, or both. Classic examples are its vs. it’s; your vs. you’re; there vs. their vs. they’re.

Real grammar is hipper and deeper than all of these.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Hating Everyday Math--every day

"What makes Everyday Math especially misleading is the fact that, when other programs are blatant about the de-emphasis of skills, Everyday Math camouflages this de-emphasis by the massive onslaught of a super-abundance of skills."
--Prof. Hung-Hsi Wu, U.C. Berkeley Mathematics Department.
This quote was sent to me by a comrad-at-arms in the math wars--along with a petition for the Central Bucks school district in Eastern Pennsylvania to Drop Everyday Math.

Yes, while math education continues to morph-- from Common Core-inspired tests to flipped classrooms to online learning--Everyday Math is still very much with us.

One of the locals who signed the petition provided a link to a 2013 article in Forbes by Emily Willingham. Willigham concludes with this:
“My children like math and play math games at home for entertainment. But they hate Everyday Math, every day.”

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Re-equpping students for "complex texts"

The Edweek article I blogged about earlier offers one other reason for grammar instruction: reading comprehension. Since the Common Core requires students to read “complex texts”

“we need to teach them how to read complex sentences,” said Chris Hayes, a veteran elementary teacher in Washoe County, Nev. And that requires deep knowledge of grammar.
Edweek touts the “Juicy sentences” approach of Lily Wong Filmore:
the technique involves pulling a particularly complicated sentence out of a text that students are reading, and deconstructing it as a class.
But for this, you need a basic vocabulary of terms with which to label the parts of sentences. And that’s where parts of speech come in. Edweek does not connect the dots; here’s my proposal:

First, teach parts of speech—especially noun, verb, preposition, article, adjective, adverb, co-ordinate conjunction, subordinate conjunction, and pronoun. Through in a few linguistic terms like “relative pronoun” (the “which” of “that” of “the book that/which I read”) and “complementizer” (the “that” of “I said that I read the book”).

Then use these terms to teach the syntactic elements of sentences—especially noun phrase, verb phrase, subject, main verb, modifier, restrictive and nonrestrictive relative clause, appositive.

Using these terms, teach students the specific steps for deconstructing and making sense of complex sentences, for example this one I blogged about earlier from Jane Austen:
To know that she had the power of revealing what would so exceedingly astonish Jane, and must, at the same time, so highly gratify whatever of her own vanity she had not yet been able to reason away, was such a temptation to openness as nothing could have conquered but the state of indecision in which she remained as to the extent of what she should communicate; and her fear, if she once entered on the subject, of being hurried into repeating something of Bingley which might only grieve her sister farther. -
Steps:

1. Remove all the parentheticals, appositives, nonrestrictive relative clauses, and sentence-level modifiers:
To know that she had the power of revealing what would so exceedingly astonish Jane, and must so highly gratify whatever of her own vanity she had not yet been able to reason away, was such a temptation to openness as nothing could have conquered but the state of indecision in which she remained as to the extent of what she should communicate; and her fear of being hurried into repeating something of Bingley which might only grieve her sister farther.
2. Find the main verb
“was”
3. Find the subject, noting that it might be many words long, and being sure to include all its modifiers. Note that in older texts, the subject may sometimes occur after the main verb.
To know that she had the power of revealing what would so exceedingly astonish Jane, and must so highly gratify whatever of her own vanity she had not yet been able to reason away
4. Find any direct or indirect objects
such a temptation to openness as nothing could have conquered but the state of indecision in which she remained as to the extent of what she should communicate; and her fear of being hurried into repeating something of Bingley which might only grieve her sister farther.
5. Repeat steps 1-4 with any really long restrictive relative or other subordinate clauses--e.g.:
[what] must so highly gratify whatever of her own vanity she had not yet been able to reason away
and:
[that] nothing could have conquered but the state of indecision in which she remained as to the extent of what she should communicate; and her fear of being hurried into repeating something of Bingley which might only grieve her sister farther.
6. Paraphrase the gist of the subject and object; then paraphrase the gist of the sentence

7. Repeat steps 1-6 with any with really long parentheticals, appositives, nonrestrictive relative clauses, and sentence-level modifiers.

8. Gradually add the gist of these modifiers to the gist of the sentence.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Math problems of the week: Common Core-inspired open-ended math questions for 5th grade

From the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Mathematics Item and Scoring Sampler for Grade 5:


Extra Credit:

Does this "complete explanation" show that the student has moved beyond procedural understanding to conceptual understanding?