Wednesday, May 4, 2016

When old news inspires open-ended assignments

In a recent article in Edweek, Sarah Sparks reports on a new book by affiliates of USC's Brain Creativity Instistute, Emotions, Learning, and the Brain. In this book, Immordino-Yang et al

found that as students learn new rules during a task, such as the most efficient way to answer a math problem or the best deck to choose in a card game, they show emotional and physical responses long before they became consciously aware of the rules or are able to articulate them.  
This emotional response—think of a student having a "gut feeling" that a particular answer was right—was the first sign of a student learning from her experience with the task.
Why the rediscovery of the gut feeling is worth an article in Edweek is thus far unclear. But there’s more:
Immordino-Yang and her colleagues [at UCS’s Brain Creativity Institute] have found that even abstract academic concepts can inspire an emotional connection if people understand their context. For example, mathematicians show the same pleasure response in the brain when they see an efficient equation as others have shown when viewing a beautiful piece of art.
If Immordino-Yang et al had delved a little deeper, they might have found that “abstract academic concepts,” including mathematical ones, have a long history of inspiring emotions--even in the absence of whatever is meant here by “context.” But perhaps, for those who steer clear of abstractions, this finding is nonetheless newsworthy.

Also apparently newsworthy:
…separate studies… suggest that negative emotions can interfere with learning in part because they compete with normal engagement with new concepts.
You mean if I think about death--or taxes, or how anxious I am about math--while I’m trying to learn math, it might actually interfere with my learning process?

Other startling findings:
"What happens when thinking is devoid of emotion is you don't remember it or think deeply about it," Immordino-Yang said.
You mean the stuff I think about the most and remember the best tends not to be stuff I’m completely indifferent to?

What’s not so obvious is Edweek’s takeaway: that schools should “support students’ emotional development.” Why not instead make sure the stuff they’re learning is actually engaging? Engagement, after all, is inherently emotional: a combination of excitement, curiosity, inspiration, and ambition.

Sparks reminds us that
Prior studies have shown children become less positive over the course of elementary school, and new German studies suggest academic engagement and achievement—or the lack of them—could create feedback loops for young students. 
… A student who was anxious in math class in 2nd grade was likelier to have lower math achievement at the end of the year; lower math achievement at the end of 2nd grade made it likelier that the student would be even more anxious in 3rd grade, increasing the risk of even lower math performance, and so on through elementary school. Boredom also produced a negative cycle, while early enjoyment in math created a positive feedback cycle.
But is the answer to tinker with students’ emotions, or with the assignments we subject them to?

Yang’s answer, refreshingly, involves both. First, encourage students to use their cognitive intuitions while learning. Second, make content meaningful rather than distracting students with jokes and prizes. So far so good. But then comes recommendation number three:
Give students open-ended problems that force them to dig into the definition of the task itself.
Where did this come from? What does being forced to "dig into the definition of the task" have to do with positive emotions and learning? Open-ended problems are already all the rage, and many of them, for many students, lead not to positive feelings, but to disengagement and anxiety.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Common Core-inspired grammar fallacies, and why we need paper graders

An article in a February issue of Edweek, Will the Common Core Step Up Schools' Focus on Grammar?, repeats the false choice I blogged about earlier between isolated grammar lessons and unstructured reading and writing assignments:

Determining the best approach for teaching grammar and semantics is now once again a critical conversation topic. Should teachers dedicate time to stand-alone grammar lessons and tasks---diagramming sentences, for instance, or memorizing the differences between adjectives and adverbs? Or can students learn the language system through broad writing and reading?
Later on in the piece, however, author Liana Heitin acknowledges that the Common Core, at least accordingly to some interpretations, has taken a middle ground, appearing to embrace what I’ve called “applied syntax”:
“The standards do, however, focus more on grammar application than most previous state standards, some say—which could encourage more authentic grammar work.
On the other hand, the standards (and their professional interpreters) still fall for Fallacy II: failing to factor out those aspects of grammar that native English speakers already know:
the grammar skills in the content standards don’t differ too much from most previous state standards… For instance, they ask students to ‘use an apostrophe to form contractions’ and ‘form and use regular and irregular verbs’—benchmarks that shouldn’t much surprise teachers. 
“Whereas before it was OK for a kid to identify nouns, now, it’s that they actually have to be able to use them and use them correctly,” said [one teacher].
Native English speakers do need to learn written conventions like when to use an apostrophe; they don’t need to learn how to conjugate English verbs and how to use English nouns. The latter skills belong in Common Core Standards for ESL, not Common Core Standards for ELA.

However willing teachers are to teach native speakers how to conjugate verbs and use nouns, Liana Heitin and the teacher she quotes have reservations about embedding grammar instruction in the feedback-on-multiple-writing-drafts approach I suggested earlier:
The realities of classroom management can make teaching grammar through writing tough as well. “Ideally, you wouldn’t have to teach [basic grammar skills] in isolation—you’d be having students writing a paper and then correcting it,” said Meghan Everette, a 3rd grade teacher…. “But it doesn’t really work out that way.”  
“Young students need a lot of direction in learning new skills, she said. And managing that kind of individualized task with 20 or 30 students is just too time consuming.”
Yes, as I noted earlier, marking up a stack of student papers is one of the most tedious teaching tasks out there. And yet, teachers used to do that regularly. If that’s too much to ask of today’s teachers, then let’s try something similar to the classroom teacher vs. classroom management labor-division I suggested in my last post. In addition to classroom teachers, let’s hire paper graders—akin to those we find in in large college classes. Again, we can safely offset the cost of the added personnel by increasing average class size.

Not all of the student self-correction process needs to be labor-intensive for teachers. Many errors needn’t be explicitly pointed out in order for students to fix them. Sometimes it’s just a matter of requiring students to actually re-read, and proofread, their papers—something that fewer and fewer seem to be in the habit of doing.

Teachers can also motivate careful revisions with minimal time expenditure by harnessing the tremendous editorial power of the Word Limit. As anyone who has faced one of these can tell you, cutting out words without sacrificing content generally involves drastically improving your prose. So why not ask students to reduce their word count, say, by 50%, without eliminating any content, from penultimate to final draft?

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Social emotional learning for everyone, or special interventions for disruptors?

Grit, growth mindsets, social emotional learning (SEL): these latest edu-fads are flourishing as never before--the more so as No Child Left Behind is succeed by the more optimistic Every Student Succeeds Act. In assessing our school children, states must now include at least one “non-academic” measure. The claim, of course, is that non-academic factors ultimately influence academic performance. And who would argue with the idea that how much you persevere and how engaged you are affect how much you learn?

But when schools divert students away from learning activities in order to engage in “social emotional learning,” (SEL), it’s reasonable to be skeptical--even when we encounter “research” that “shows” that some of these SEL programs are increasing academic test scores.

In particular, we must rule out:

1. The Hawthorne effect

2. The possibility that the extra staffing and investment involved may, independently of any SEL-specific activities, have positive ripple effects on classroom academics

3. The possibility that SELs programs improve academic achievement only inasmuch as they improve classroom behavior.

This last factor strikes me as the most likely reason for the efficacy of those SELs programs that are in fact effective. Disruptive, distracting behavior imposes a tremendous drain on teaching/learning—for perpetrators and victims alike.

But then the question becomes: is having the entire school population participate in weekly/daily SEL programs really the most efficient way to improve the behavior of the specific students who disrupt learning? How about instead doing the following:

1. Split the classroom teaching/classroom management positions into two separate jobs.
2. Put highly qualified teachers up front, and highly qualified classroom managers in back.
3. Give the latter the authority to remove disruptive students (temporarily or for the long term).
4. Offset the expense of extra adults in classrooms with substantially larger class sizes.
5. Spend the money that would have been spent on SEL instruction for the entire student body on special psychiatric and academic services for disruptive students.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Classroom grammar instruction, fallacy II: teaching grammar rules to native speakers

So what predominates in public school writing instruction is neither:

- useful, explicit grammar instruction that facilitates the understanding of style rules (dangling modifiers, parallel structures), foreign language grammar, and complex sentences in English

nor:

-opportunities for implicit learning that come from expert feedback on multiple drafts.

In terms of writing, the results of this are evident in student papers, in written instructions, in promotional materials, and even in published articles.

What keeps most of us complacent about this are two phenomena

1. to some extent, it’s mostly the good writers who recognize bad writing for what it is (keeping the general malaise about the State of Writing in equilibrium)

2. there will always be a decent number of decent, self-taught writers: people who read enough high-quality prose to pick up the conventions; people write intuitively by ear.

It occurs to me that, besides the false choice between part-of-speech drills and peer-editing, there’s a second fallacy afoot. People forgot that, when it comes to native speakers, only certain aspects of grammar need to be taught. No native English speaker needs to be taught how to conjugate English verbs or form the comparatives and superlatives of English adjectives—and yet, I’ve seen this happen.

Self-taught writers aside, what English speakers need to be taught isn’t the syntax of their native language, but how to make active use of that syntax: call it “applied syntax.” One example of applied syntax is identifying and fixing dangling modifiers and un-parallel structures. Another is deploying options like active vs. passive voice (“I was astounded by his tone”), clefting (“what particularly astounded me was his tone”), and inversion (“particularly astounding to me was his tone”) to control emphasis and flow.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How good does your English have to be to score well on Pennsylvania math?

To earn full points on the Open-Ended questions on Pennsylvania's assessment tests (the PSSAs), you have to provide satisfactory explanations for your answers.

From the Grades 3-6 PSSA Released Practice Items:

Marco cut his cake into 8 equal pieces. Nikki cut her cake into 16 equal pieces. Niki says that her cake is bigger than Marco’s because it has more pieces.

EXPLAIN why Nikki is not correct.

A "sufficient" explanation:

An "insufficient" explanation:

Friday, April 22, 2016

Math problems of the week: 6th grade Common Core-inspired math question

A sample question from Pennsylvania's state test (PSSA) released items and soring rubric:

Sergei knows the bicycle he wants to buy will cost more than $84.00. He has already saved $26.75 for the bicycle. His aunt has given him $20.00 to use to buy the bicycle. Which inequality describes all of the additional amounts of money (m), in dollars, that Sergei could save to be able to buy the bicycle?

m > 37.25

m >  46.75

m >  57.25

m >  84.00

[69 words]


Rewrite:

Sergei wants to buy a bike that costs over $84.00. He has $26.75 and his aunt gives him $20.00. Complete the inequality for the amount he still needs in dollars.

m  > _____

[33 words]

Extra Credit:

Is anything of mathematical significance lost in translation?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Classroom grammar instruction, fallacy I: either parts of speech drills or child-directed writing

Today’s classrooms tend to assume that grammar amounts to parts of speech: nouns, verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and so on. Enthusiasts of such "grammar" treat memorizing these labels as an end in and of itself; detractors, rejecting this, reject grammar instruction in general.

Memorizing parts of speech and stopping there is, indeed, a waste of time. But, taught sensibly, the basic labels give students the vocabulary they need to proceed on to the meanings of more useful grammatical terms like “sentence,” “clause,” “subject,” “predicate,” “subordinate conjunction,” and “coordinate conjunction.” It’s hard to explain what these terms mean without using the more primitive terms “noun,” “article,” “main verb,” “auxiliary verb” and “conjunction.” The reason for learning the meanings of “sentence,” “clause,” “subject,” “predicate,” “subordinate conjunction,” and “coordinate conjunction,” in turn, is to learn the conventions specific to written language that most students don’t pick up on their own: particularly punctuation and style rules. It’s hard to explain when to use (or not use) a period, comma, semi-colon; or which modifiers are dangling; or which structures are or aren’t parallel, without reference to “sentence,” “clause,” “subject,” etc.

Those who reject part of speech instruction as pointless seem to assume that proper punctuation and style will emerge organically, through text-rich environments and frequent writing assignments.

In principle, frequent writing assignments could improve punctuation and style, but only if students get frequent expert feedback. Through regular feedback from discerning teachers--circles around misplaced punctuation marks and dangling modifiers, etc.-- students might learn implicitly, without reference to entities like clauses and subjects, the various rules of style and punctuation. But this requires teachers to spend time thoroughly marking up written work, and to assign multiple follow-up drafts in which students fine-tune their corrections.

Unfortunately, schools have moved quite far from this once commonplace practice. Instead of expert feedback, students now mostly get feedback from fellow novices—in a trendy practice known as “peer editing.” Its appeal is obvious: not only is it a lot less work for teachers (marking up a stack of student papers is one of the most tedious teaching tasks out there); it’s also pretty to think that, true to the Constructivism dreamworld, students learn best not through explicit teaching from sages on stages, but implicitly, organically, on their own and from one another.

So, while today’s students may get a smattering of speech labels some time in elementary school because some authority somewhere said something about grammar being important, what they learn next is anyone’s guess.