Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Autism diaries XX: reading mischief

This summer, mercifully, there seem to be no summer projects.  But we haven't escaped the summer reading assignments, and so I need to decide whether to have J struggle through sentences like:

It was interesting to see the teachers come and go, talking about what they would have for lunch or what they had done the night before just as if they were normal people.
...or whether to stick with The Story of the World, Volume IV and its much more comprehensible sentences like:
One September morning in 1845, an Irish farmer in his field pushed his hand into the ground to check in his potatoes.
While The Story of the World doesn't present the comprehension challenges of realistic fiction, it does sometimes awaken J's mischievousness.  Here's what happened as J continued reading aloud the account of the Irish potato famine.

"'His fingers found only soft, rotten mush. Desperately, he began to dig. A horrible stench rose up out of the ground.  All of the potatoes beneath the thick stem had rotted away in the ground.'"

J looks off to the side and starts smiling.  Is he reminiscing about repurposing the potatoes as batteries, or plotting some new mischief?

"Keep reading," I command.

"'The blight had come to Ireland."

His concentration returns and he makes it through the next paragraph without incident.  He begins the following one.

"'The potato crop failed again the following year, and the year after that, and the year after than."  He starts chuckling.

"Keep reading."

"'No one knew how to stop the potato plague. People in Ireland began to die of hunger in the hundreds..." his chuckling continues.


"'and then in the thousands.'"  Louder chuckles.

"'and then in the hundreds of thousands.'"  Now belly laughs.

Is he laughing in response to the reading? I start wondering.  I take the book away. 

"Why are you laughing?"

"Because I think it's funny that so many Irish people died."

It's at moments like these that I'm grateful for the psychological re-evaluation he had last summer as part of renewing his autism-related services.  After his umpteenth, gleeful announcement to all the professionals present that "I am going to kill you," Ms. G., a trained art therapist, handed him a blank piece of paper and some colored pencils and asked him to draw something.

And instead of drawing a picture of a boy gleefully cutting up an earthworm or holding up a still-lit match to a burning house (pictures that are completely outside J's repertoire), he drew a picture of an Acela Train captioned by a schedule of all the stops it takes between Philadelphia and Boston, and proceeded to explain it in great detail.

"He shows absolutely no signs of psychosis," Ms. G declared afterwards.

Which is not to say that he doesn't have disturbing reactions to world history.  Stay tuned for a post on what happened when we read about South African apartheid.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sociability, leadership, and academic distinction

I'm not sure how much academics factored into the National Honor Society criteria back when I was in school, but I'm pretty sure these criteria included more than a 3.0 grade point average. Today, a 3.0 is all you need, as long as you meet these other criteria (from the National Honor Society website):

This quality is defined through the voluntary contributions made by a student to the school or community, done without compensation and with a positive, courteous, and enthusiastic spirit. 

Student leaders are those who are resourceful, good problem solvers, promoters of school activities, idea-contributors, dependable, and persons who exemplify positive attitudes about life. Leadership experiences can be drawn from school or community activities while working with or for others. 

The student of good character upholds principles of morality and ethics, is cooperative, demonstrates high standards of honesty and reliability, shows courtesy, concern, and respect for others, and generally maintains a good and clean lifestyle.
The student who demonstrates citizenship understands the importance of civic involvement, has a high regard for freedom, justice, and democracy, and demonstrates mature participation and responsibility through involvement with such activities as scouting, community organizations, and school clubs.
Then we have gifted programs. As I discussed in a recent post, these, too, increasingly prioritize non-academic skills.  Here's a specific example, posted by 1crosbycat in response to a related post:
The curricular framework for meeting the wide range of gifted needs and abilities include these essentials:

Affective skills
Leadership skills
Communication skills
Creative thinking skills
Decision making skills
Critical thinking skills
Logical thinking skills
Organization and management skills
Research and independent study skills
Specific content and career exploration
So here's my question. For the many bright introverts, bright children with Asperger's, bright but bored underachievers, and asynchronously developing gifted children out there, is there any form of "academic" distinction that doesn't impose standards of personal character that can only be met by cheerful, charismatic, organized extroverts?

Standardized tests like the SATs come to mind, but, as I note in an earlier post, more and more colleges are de-emphasizing such tests:
A commission convened by some of the country’s most influential college admissions officials is recommending that colleges and universities move away from their reliance on SAT and ACT scores and shift toward admissions exams more closely tied to the high school curriculum and achievement.
But then there are problems even with curriculum-based assessments. The problem with these, as I note in my book and in an earlier post, is that curricula (and even grades) are based less and less on challenging academic standards, and more and more on sociability and positive attitudes.

So I repeat my question. For the many bright introverts, bright children with Asperger's, bright but bored underachievers, and asynchronously developing gifted children, is there any form of "academic" distinction out there that doesn't impose standards of personal character that can only be met by cheerful, charismatic, organized extroverts?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Math problems of the week: 4th grade Trailblazers vs. Singapore Math

I. The last four decimals problems in the "Using Decimals" chapter of the 4th grade Math Trailblazers Student Guide, p. 286:

["/" stands for tenths; "." stands for hundredths]

4. Jessie and Roberto were playing Hundredths, Hundredths, Hundredths. Roberto made the following number.

///// . . . . 

Write the common fraction and the decimal fraction for Roberto's number.

5. When it was Jessie's turn, she wanted to make 6.48. Use base-ten shorthand to show Jessie's number.

6. Roberto wanted to build the number 9.06. Use base-ten shorthand to show what [base-ten] pieces he should use.

7. Jessie wrote nine and six hundredths like this: 9.6. Explain why this is incorrect.

II. The last four decimals problems in "The Four Operations of Decimals" chapter of the 4th Grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 4B, pp. 75-76:

4. Gwen and Susan bought the box of crackers and the tub of ice cream. They shared the cost equally. How much did each girl pay? [picture of cracker box, labeled $3.15; picture of ice cream tub, labeled $4.65]

5. Angela bought 5 kg of grapes. She gave the cashier $50 and received $18.75 change. Find the cost of 1 kg of grapes.

6. The total weight of 5 blocks of butter and a bag of flour is 2.7 lb. If the weight of the bag of flour is 1.2 lb, find the weight of each block of butter.

7. A painter mixed 10.5 liters of white paint with 15.5 liters of red paint. He poured the mixture equally into 4 cans. How much paint was there in each can?

III. Extra Credit

Comparing the mathematical demands of the two problem sets, discuss whether "base 10 shorthand" offers Trailblazers students a shortcut through decimals.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In case there weren't enough anti-introvert policies out there...

An article in last week’s New York Times reports on a new question raised by today's education experts: “Should a child really have a best friend?”

Their concerns? That exclusive friendships may cause “cliques and bullying.”

Instead, according to Christine Laycob, director of counseling at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis, kids should “have big groups of friends and not be so possessive about friends":

Parents sometimes say Johnny needs that one special friend. We say he doesn’t need a best friend.
The Times suggests this trend extends beyond St Louis Country Day School:
For many child-rearing experts, the ideal situation might well be that of Matthew and Margaret Guest, 12-year-old twins in suburban Atlanta, who almost always socialize in a pack. One typical Friday afternoon, about 10 boys and girls filled the Guest family backyard. Kids were jumping on the trampoline, shooting baskets and playing manhunt, a variation on hide-and-seek.

Neither Margaret nor Matthew has ever had a best friend. “I just really don’t have one person I like more than others,” Margaret said. “Most people have lots of friends.” Matthew said he considers 12 boys to be his good friends and says he sees most of them “pretty much every weekend.”

Their mother, Laura Guest, said their school tries to prevent bullying through workshops and posters. And extracurricular activities keep her children group-oriented — Margaret is on the swim team and does gymnastics; Matthew plays football and baseball.
Beyond Atlanta and the school year:
As the calendar moves into summer, efforts to manage friendships don’t stop with the closing of school. In recent years Timber Lake Camp, a co-ed sleep-away camp in Phoenicia, N.Y., has started employing “friendship coaches” to work with campers to help every child become friends with everyone else. If two children seem to be too focused on each other, the camp will make sure to put them on different sports teams, seat them at different ends of the dining table or, perhaps, have a counselor invite one of them to participate in an activity with another child whom they haven’t yet gotten to know.
Jay Jacobs, the camp’s director, expresses one additional concern about best friends:
“I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for a child to rely on one friend. If something goes awry, it can be devastating. It also limits a child’s ability to explore other options in the world.”
At JoanneJacobs commenter Quincy has a different take:
The thing this idea doesn’t consider, as most education fads don’t, is how difficult this broad-and-shallow model of friendship would be on introverts. There are some people for whom the act of socializing with a large group is quite difficult, even a little painful…
When it comes to socializing, I find being around more than a few people to be mentally exhausting. When I was growing up, all I could manage was 2 or 3 good friends, and it would have been tough to hear from the people running the school that that wasn’t OK.
The interviews I conducted for my book, along with my own personal preferences, suggest that introverts are far more comfortable with one person at a time than in groups of any size. For us, going from one-on-one to one-on-many really is a quantum leap.

As Quincy notes, “To favor this mode of socialization is to favor extroverts over introverts, which I guess is a perfectly fine form of discrimination these days.”

Indeed, requiring children to play in groups, in its effects on introverts, is right up there with requiring them to work in groups, forcing them to share their personal feelings, and basing more and more of their grades on oral class participation.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Inventing languages

In her delightful book In the Land of Invented Languages, just out in paperback and written up in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer, one of my fellow Chicago-trained linguists, Arika Okrent, explores the world's myriad made-up languages and the eccentrics behind them. 

Some aspired towards ethnic (Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and modern Hebrew) or world (Lazar Ludwik Zamenhof and Esperanto) unity; others, in the words of The Inquirer, "raged for order."  As Okrent tells reporter John Timpane:
"There is a lot of messiness and ambiguity in language... We need it. We need that wiggle room. But if you have an engineering mind, you'll see irritating things. Why do words have more than one meaning?...Why do we have irregular verbs? Why are pronouns in English so messed up?"
In the late 1940s, Austrian engineer Charles Bliss invented Blissymbolics, which he hoped could become a writing system for all languages, "logical writing for an illogical world." And James Cooke Brown [better known for the board game Careers] invented Loglan, a language that followed the rules of logic.
Others invented languages more for the inherent pleasure it gave them and others-- e.g., J.R.R. Tolkien (Elvish) and linguist Marc Okrand (Klingon).

As Okrent says of language inventors in general, "Many people have suggested there's an Asperger's-like, hyper-male mind-set at work, and there may be some truth to that."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Gifted programs and obedient kids

In a recent blog I discussed ways in which gifted programs end up gating off some of the most gifted left-brainers, whose asynchronous development and social immaturity may clash with the "whole child" readiness that many of today's gifted programs insist on.

1crosbycat then commented with a telling anecdote:
A mother of twin high school seniors told me earlier this year about how both boys were tested for the gifted (GATE) program in elementary school. Only one boy was accepted and out of curiosity, she asked to see the other's test scores. She and the Guidance Counselor were surprised to find that the one declined had higher scores, but he was more socially shy and awkward.
Some of the other responses I received suggest something equally sinister: are some schools basing their admissions decisions on some sort of self-serving agenda?  For example, the cultivation of passive, obedient students?  As one mom writes of her school:
Good behavior was "rewarded" by being  admitted into gifted classes. When I subbed in emotional support and autistic support classes, I would see lowered expectations and some very brilliant insights. When I taught in gifted classes, I would see well-behaved kids who were great at regurgitating concrete facts
As LexAequitas puts it:
Just as teachers seem to have a different idea of what "gifted" means, I think they have a similar idea about the word "maturity".

Somehow, both of them seem to boil down to brain power that's average or a bit above combined with obedience.
Part of the problem may lie in who is currently charged with teaching gifted children. Back when I was in school there were a handful for highly quirky, intelligent teachers who seemed to have chosen their professions, in part, out of a desire to work with highly quirky, intelligent students.  They were actively recruited by a principal who held a PhD in something other than "educational leadership."  And they were not the sort of people who would make it through today's dissent-crushing education schools, much less avoid getting fired for insubordination by today's line-toeing "educational leaders."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Math problem of the week: Core-Plus Math vs. traditional math on parallelograms

I. From Core Plus Mathematics, Contemporary Math in Context (a unified high school "core curriculum appropriate for all students") Course 2 (year 2), Part B, p. 378:

A common method of designing a pop-up page or greeting card is based on a parallelogram. Tabs attached to facing pages form two consecutive faces of a prism with a parallelogram base. The other two faces are attached to the tabs and serve as props for the picture. As a page or card is turned the prism unfolds and the picture pops up.

a. Use this method to construct a paper model of a pop-up picture. Use piece of paper folded in the middle as consecutive pages of a book. A second piece of paper is needed to carry the picture. Make your model carefully. Test it. Modify it until it works well.

b. Why does the picture in your model lie flat when the book is closed?

c. Why does the picture in your model lie flat when the book is wide open?

d. When will the picture be positioned perpendicular to the right-hand page?

e. When will the picture mke a 120o angle with the right-hand page?

f. Could the parallelogram base of the prism be relaced by any other quadrilteral? If so, which ones? If not, explain your reasoning.

II. From Weeks & Atkins A Course in Geometry (a high school geometry text first published in 1961), p. 153:

1. The diagonals of a parallelogram ABCD meet at O. Any line through O meets AB and DC at X and Y respectively. Prove that XO = OY.

2. Prove that the perpendiculars from the vertices A nd C of the parallelogram ABCD to the diagonl BD are equal.

3. The side AB of the parallelogram ABCD is extended to E so that BE = AB. Prove that BC and DE bisect each other.

III. Extra Credit

From proofs to popups: discuss how far geometry instruction has come in 20th-21st century America.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

More artsy science and science appreciation, II

This time it's a movement to introduce engineering classes to elementary schools, as reported by an article in yesterday's New York Times entitled Studying Engineering Before They Can Spell It.

As The Times Reports:
Spurred by growing concerns that American students lack the skills to compete in a global economy, school districts nationwide are packing engineering lessons into already crowded schedules for even the youngest students, giving priority to a subject that was once left to after-school robotics clubs and summer camps, or else waited until college.
These priorities have trickled up to the federal government:
Congress is considering legislation, endorsed by more than 100 businesses and organizations like I.B.M. and Lockheed Martin, to promote engineering education from kindergarten through 12th grade.
And translate into yet more education spending:
In Manassas, Va., which has a thriving biotech industry, the local school district has spent $300,000 on a children's engineering program since 2008, equipping its six elementary schools with tool kits for projects like making musical instruments from odds and ends, building bridges with uncooked spaghetti and launching hot-air balloons made from trash bags and cups.
Who knew toolkits involving odds and ends, uncooked spaghetti, and trash bags could cost a local school district hundreds of thousands of dollars?

The article cites several other examples of elementary school engineering projects.  In Mary Morrow's classroom in Glen Rock, New Jersey:
First graders were recently challenged with helping a farmer keep rabbits out of his garden.

In teams of four, they brainstormed about building fences with difficult-to-scale ladders instead of doors and setting out food decoys for the rabbits. They drew up blueprints and then brought them to life with plastic plates, paper cups, straws and foam paper.

Then they planned to test their ideas with pop-up plastic rabbits. If the fences were breached, they would be asked to improve the design.
And at the new Midway Elementary School of Science and Engineering in Anderson, South Carolina:
kindergartners celebrated Groundhog Day by stringing together a pulley system to lift a paper groundhog off the floor.
Not all are enthusiastic about this trend:
As these lessons have spread, some parents, teachers and engineers question how much children are really absorbing, and if schools should be expending limited resources on the subject.
William E. Kelly, a spokesman for the American Society for Engineering Education and former dean of the engineering school at Catholic University in Washington, cautioned that engineering lessons for youngsters should be kept in perspective.

"You're not really learning what I would call engineering fundamentals," he said of such programs. "You're really learning about engineering."
Learning about engineering.  Sound familiar?

Indeed, educators in Glen Rock invoke two other all-too-familiar educational priorities:  real life connections and social skills:
Here in Glen Rock, where students have long excelled at math and science, administrators and teachers decided to incorporate engineering into the elementary grades to connect classroom learning to real life, as well as to instill social skills like collaboration and cooperation that are valued in the work force, said Kathleen Regan, the curriculum director.

"They have to have the thinking skills of an engineer to keep up with all the innovation that's constantly coming into their world," Ms. Morrow said.
Ms. Morrow's enthusiasm is share by her students--at least those quoted:
"It gets your brain going," said Elizabeth Crowley, 7, who wants to be an engineer when she grows up. "And I actually learn something when I'm doing a project -- like you can work together to do something you couldn't do before."
But not all these students are sure what engineering is really about:
In the kindergarten class that was designing homes -- none out of hay, wood or brick -- for the three pigs, Ms. Morrow started the lesson by asking the 20 children sitting cross-legged on the carpet if they knew what engineers do.

"They can write poems?" one girl guessed.

"Well," Ms. Morrow allowed, "they could write a poem about something they build."
Again, building things--never mind writing poems about building things--does not entail learning engineering. As James writes at JoanneJacobs:
It’s great that these children enjoy their projects, but it’s a mistake to convince them that it’s engineering. At best it’s iterative problem solving, which any decent machinist, farmer, carpenter, parent, etc. should be expected to do. Engineering as a discipline specifically involves the application of scientific/mathematical principles to design or develop a product or a process. By the standards exhibited in the rabbit-proof garden project (e.g., setting out food decoys) the typical scarecrow could be considered a piece of engineering.

The irony is that some of the students who are most likely to be future engineers (predominately left-brained kids) will hate the the art-project portion of the project; i.e., bringing their project “to life with plastic plates, paper cups, straws and foam paper.”
Another irony is that one of the experts quoted in the article as concerned about what students learn from these projects is the same person who is responsible for selecting the Investigations math curriculum for an Education School-School District partnership school in Philadelphia.  If you want to give students the math background they need to become engineers, Investigations, which earns an "F" from mathematicians and scientists who have reviewed it, is one of the worst programs you could possibly choose.

Combining Reform Math programs like Investigations with these kinds of hands-on engineering curricula turns some students off completely, while selling others yet another pipe dream--one that ends as soon as they try taking real math and engineering classes in college.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Autism Diaries XIX: Lie detection

Among the other contraptions J has built with his Snap Circuits is a lie detector test (or, as J clarifies it, a "sweat detector" test).  Surprisingly, despite his propensity to prevaricate, he enjoys submitting himself for testing.  In fact he often asks me to ask him certain questions whose answers he's only too happy to lie about, gleefully (knowing all too well that I know that he knows that I know, etc.).  For example, "Did you flush the toothbrushes down the toilet"?

The first time he mentioned using the lie detector as a practical tool, as opposed to as a confirmation of mischief, was one day last week as we walked back from school.  I hadn't had a chance to ask his aide what kind of day he'd had, so J told me that he'd had a "great day," and then presented me with two options:

"Either you can call Mr. M. when we get home and check, or I can take a lie detector test."

Friday, June 11, 2010

Math problem of the week: 3rd grade Everyday Math vs. Singapore Math

Today's topic:  two different strategies to make arithmetic easier.

I. From the beginning of the 3rd grade Everyday Mathematics Student Math Journal, volume 1, p. 15:

Math Message

Use your calculator

1. Sharon read the first 11 pages of her book last week. She read the rest of the book this week. If she read 86 pages week, how many pages long is her book?

Answer: Her book is _______________ pages long.
Number model: ______________________________________________

2. The paper clip was invented in 1868. The stapler was invented in 1900. How many years after the paper clip was the stapler invented?

Answer: The stapler was invented ____________ years later.
Number model: ______________________________________________

3. 28 + 64 + 39 + 42 = __________

4. 2,648 - 1, 576 = ___________

Calculator Practice

Use your calculator.

5. Begin at 25. Count up by 6s. Record your counts below.

25 ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

6. Begin at 90. Count back by 9s:

90 ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ 

Solve the calculator puzzles. Remember to add or subtract to find the "Change to" number.

Enter __ Change to ___ How?

Enter __ Change to ___ How?

II. From the beginning of the 3rd grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 3A, p. 26:

1.  Fill in the blanks.
(a) 59 + 6 = 60 + _____
(b) 42 + 3 = 40 + _____
(c)  38 + 4 = _____ +2
(d) 65 + 5 = _____+ 0
(e) 25 + 7 = 30 + _____
(f) 46+ 6 = _____ + 2

2. Add.
(a) 42 --- + 50 ---> _____
(b) 53 --- + 30 ---> _____

3. Add.
(a) 84 + 7 = 
(b) 48 + 9 = 
(c) 18 + 80 =
(d) 25 + 70 =

4. Add
(a) 58 + 34 =
(b) 46 + 24 =
(c) 24 + 68 =
(d) 47 + 62 =

III.  Extra Credit
There is no calculator practice in Singapore Math. What are Singapore Math students missing?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

More artsy science and science appreciation

This year's World Science Fair, as in its previous incarnations, once again assumes that the best way to make science interesting to lay people is through celebrity art.

Festival highlights included Broadway veterans performing a song about galaxies and calculus, and the Orchestra of St. Lukes performing a Philip Glass piece while actor John Lithgow narrated a dramatization of a children's book by physicist Brian Greene about a boy who flies to a black hole.

In the process, however, as David Zax observes in his opinion piece in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, "precious little science had actually been communicated."

Instead, in an eery reflection of today's k12 science classes, the festival's goal seems to be science appreciation. As Brian Green put it when Zax asked him about the performances, "I think it's a powerful way of experiencing science, and I think the audience felt that."

But what does scientific appreciation amount to in the absence of scientific content--especially in a country in which, as Zax reports, less than half the population knows that atoms are larger than electrons?

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Internet as yet another force of right-brain thinking

In his Op-Ed in Saturday's Wall Street Journal, Nicholas Carr, author of "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains" showcases the virtues of the in-depth, focused, linear, left-brained teaching and learning habits that the Internet has been distracting us away from:

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that the Net, with its constant distractions and interruptions, is... turning us into scattered and superficial thinkers.
Carr proceeds with his digest of this evidence:
The picture emerging from the research is deeply troubling, at least to anyone who values the depth, rather than just the velocity, of human thought. People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read traditional linear text. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, alerts and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. And people who juggle many tasks are less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time.
The richness of our thoughts, our memories and even our personalities hinges on our ability to focus the mind and sustain concentration. Only when we pay deep attention to a new piece of information are we able to associate it "meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory," writes the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. Such associations are essential to mastering complex concepts.

In an article published in Science last year, Patricia Greenfield, a leading developmental psychologist, reviewed dozens of studies on how different media technologies influence our cognitive abilities. Some of the studies indicated that certain computer tasks, like playing video games, can enhance "visual literacy skills," increasing the speed at which people can shift their focus among icons and other images on screens. Other studies, however, found that such rapid shifts in focus, even if performed adeptly, result in less rigorous and "more automatic" thinking.

Ms. Greenfield concluded that "every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others." Our growing use of screen-based media, she said, has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can improve the ability to do jobs that involve keeping track of lots of simultaneous signals, like air traffic control. But that has been accompanied by "new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes," including "abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination." We're becoming, in a word, shallower.
This shallowness persists beyond screen time:
It would be one thing if the ill effects went away as soon as we turned off our computers and cellphones. But they don't. The cellular structure of the human brain, scientists have discovered, adapts readily to the tools we use, including those for finding, storing and sharing information. By changing our habits of mind, each new technology strengthens certain neural pathways and weakens others. The cellular alterations continue to shape the way we think even when we're not using the technology.

What we seem to be sacrificing in all our surfing and searching is our capacity to engage in the quieter, attentive modes of thought that underpin contemplation, reflection and introspection. The Web never encourages us to slow down. It keeps us in a state of perpetual mental locomotion.
Carr proceeds to extoll the forgotten virtues of book smarts, which have the opposite effect on what is, in fact, a natural human inclination towards distraction:
It is revealing, and distressing, to compare the cognitive effects of the Internet with those of an earlier information technology, the printed book. Whereas the Internet scatters our attention, the book focuses it. Unlike the screen, the page promotes contemplativeness.

Reading a long sequence of pages helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline. The innate bias of the human brain, after all, is to be distracted. Our predisposition is to be aware of as much of what's going on around us as possible. Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we'd overlook a nearby source of food.

To read a book is to practice an unnatural process of thought. It requires us to place ourselves at what T. S. Eliot, in his poem "Four Quartets," called "the still point of the turning world." We have to forge or strengthen the neural links needed to counter our instinctive distractedness, thereby gaining greater control over our attention and our mind.

It is this control, this mental discipline, that we are at risk of losing as we spend ever more time scanning and skimming online. If the slow progression of words across printed pages damped our craving to be inundated by mental stimulation, the Internet indulges it. It returns us to our native state of distractedness, while presenting us with far more distractions than our ancestors ever had to contend with.
Carr's critics, for example Jonah Lehrer in this week's New York Times Book Review, have been quick to emphasize the positive effects of the Internet on cognition--effects that Carr mostly acknowledges as well: visual perception, visual attention, and processing speed.

I find it interesting how much of what the Internet promotes is what I call "right-brain" thinking: visual thinking; breadth over depth; shifting attention among multiple tasks or media. To the extent that this rewires our brains, it's turning more and more of us into right-brainers.

Perhaps that's one reason why so much of this new thinking is reflected in our k12 classrooms, what with all those visually stimulating textbooks with distracting sidebars; all those arts & crafts components of activities and assignments; all that multi-media; all those times when children are supposed to make external personal connections when they read rather than immersing themselves in the world of the text; and, of course, all that ongoing marginalization of linear lectures, texts, and writing assignments.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Do gifted programs gate off the truly gifted?

An article in this past Tuesday's New York Times discusses the gender gap in gifted programs in New York City and around the country, where, in general, one finds significantly more girls than boys. The New York City schools, the article points out, base 25% of a child's "gifted score" on a giftedness admissions test that has been field-tested for gender bias. 

While cautious about drawing firm conclusions about what's causing the gender gap, the article nonetheless repeats the theories seen in such books as The Trouble With Boys:  the emphasis on early reading and writing, where boys tend to lag behind girls, and the similar lag of boys in social and emotional development.  

This raises the question of why social, emotional, and other non-academic criteria should play any role in determining giftedness, as they often do (particularly where teacher recommendations are part of the process). After all, research has shown many gifted children (male and female) to be developmentally skewed or "asynchronous" (see, e.g., here and here), and, in particular, often socially, emotionally, and/or organizationally immature.  

As I discuss in my book, the reasons for considering global maturity may have more to do with current fashions in education than with what academically challenging programming intrinsically requires. Today's classrooms, and gifted classrooms in particular, increasingly emphasize collaborative work, reflections about personal feelings, and organizationally demanding projects. At the same time math--an area of relative strength for boys--has become less and less mathematically challenging (and increasingly infused with language arts). Were teachers to shift back towards more structured, academically challenging solo assignments, many more gifted boys, as well as many overlooked gifted girls, would thrive academically--and gain admissions to gifted programs.

Indeed, one has to wonder just how many truly gifted children, especially the more unsocial left-brainers out there, are no longer identified as such.

The whole giftedness system, of course, is fraught with prejudice and controversy. My preference is to eliminate the gated community of giftedness entirely--along with all limitations on access to challenging work.  Why not simply let children learn at their own rates, and, in later grades, offer math, literature, and other classes at a variety of different levels. For example, make sure to offer truly challenging math classes, and give any child who wants to the freedom to sign up for them--along with the freedom to switch over to something less challenging if he or she finds himself languishing.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Math problems of the week: 3rd grade Trailblazers vs. Singapore Math

1. The final questions in the first unit on multiplication and division, "Exploring Multiplication and Division," in the 3rd grade Math Trailblazers Student Guide, p. 103:

Your family decides to save coins in a money jar and to divide them evenly among the members of your family each month. One month, your family finds 36 dimes in the jar. How much money will each member of your family get? How much money will be left over? Write a number sentence to show your solution to the problem. You can solve this problem at home using counters of some sort, such as beans, checkers, or toothpicks.

2. The final questions in the first unit on multiplication and division, "Multiplication and Division," in the 3rd grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 3A, p. 103:

Mrs. Holt had 186 stickers. She gave 5 stickers to each student in her class. How many students were there in her class? How many stickers were left over?

3 students sold 243 concert tickets altogether. Each student sold the same number of tickets. How many tickets did each student sell?

3. Extra Credit:

Why aren't Singapore Math students asked to write number sentences and given the option of solving the problems "using counters of some sort, such as beans, checkers, or toothpicks."

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Reading comprehension passages, then and now

I. From the website superteacherworksheets.com, Fourth Grade Reading Comprehension Worksheets:

Roly Poly Pill Bugs

Some people are afraid of bugs such as spiders or beetles. But there is one bug that just about everybody likes—pill bugs. If you ever pick one up, you know why its nickname is “roly-poly.” A pill bug rolls up into a tight little ball to protect itself. This bug is scared of you, not the other way around!

These little gray or brown bugs can be found almost everywhere in the United States except the desert. That is because they need to stay moist. But they can live in dry places like California thanks to lawn sprinklers. One of their favorite hang-outs is under damp flower pots.

Did you know that pill bugs have something in common with kangaroos? After her eggs hatch, the mother pill bug carries her young in a pouch under her belly. The little pill bugs stay there until they are big enough to be on their own.

Pill bugs also have something in common with snakes. Just as snakes shed their skin when it gets too small, pill bugs do too. This is called “molting.” A pill bug molts about five times until it is full-grown.

Pill bugs are a little like owls, too. Pill bugs are nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night. That is when they most like to wander around and look for food.

And just like earthworms, pill bugs help break down plants in the soil. Pill bugs aren’t just nice bugs. They are also interesting ones!

I. From the McGuffey Third Reader, first printed in 1837:
The Beaver

1. The beaver is found chiefly in North America. It is about three and a half feet long, including the flat, paddle-shaped tail, which is about a foot in length.
2. The long, shining hair on the back is chestnut-colored, while the fine, soft fur that lies next to the skin, is grayish brown.
3. Beavers build themselves most curious huts to live in, and quite frequently a great number of these huts are placed close together, like the buildings in a town.
4. They always build their huts on the banks of rivers or lakes, for they swim much more easily than they walk, and prefer moving about in the water.
5. When they build on the bank of a running stream, they make a dam across the stream for the purpose of keeping the water at the height they wish.
6. These dams are made chiefly of mud, and stones, and the branches of trees. They are sometimes six or seven hundred feet in length, and are so constructed that they look more like the work of man than of little dumb beasts.
7. Their huts are made of the same material as the dams, and are round in shape. The walls are very thick, and the roofs are finished off with a layer of mud, sticks, and leaves.
8. They commence building their homes late in the summer, but do not get them finished before the early frosts. The freezing makes them tighter and stronger.
9. They obtain the wood for their dams and huts by gnawing through the branches of trees, and even through the trunks of small ones, with their sharp front teeth. They peel off the bark, and lay it up in store for winter food.
10. The fur of the beaver is highly prized. The men who hunt these animals are called trappers.
11. A gentleman once saw five young beavers playing. They would leap on the trunk of a tree that lay near a beaver dam, and would push one another off into the water.
>12. He crept forward very cautiously, and was about to fire on the little creatures; but their amusing tricks reminded him so much of some little children he knew at home, that he thought it would be inhuman to kill them. So he left them without even disturbing their play.
III. Reading comprehension questions

1. Contrast the strategies used by the authors to make their passages interesting to young readers. Discuss such tactics as:

-making the content familiar (connecting the information to what the reader already knows) vs. making the content new and different (immersing the reader in another world).

-including vivid, interesting details vs. simply telling the reader directly that the topic is interesting.

-exploring a subtopic in depth vs. rapidly changing subtopics.

-use of exclamation points.

2. Contrast the authors' attitudes towards the reader: which author is more respectful of the reader's natural curiosity, and which one seems more worried about losing the reader's attention?

3. Which of the two texts are readers more likely to remember long term?