Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What matters most in the "Writing Revolution"

Peg Tyre’s recent article in the Atlantic, "The Writing Revolution,” provoked controversy among educators, many of whom find direct instruction in writing, particularly at the level of sentences, to be unnatural, ineffective, joy stifling, and creativity-crushing (despite compelling evidence to the contrary).

The article should instead have provoked controversy among linguists.

It implies, among other things, that:

-Many under-privileged children, even in high school, don’t know how to use basic conjunctions like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so, and basic connectors like although and despite, and that the remedy includes teaching them the parts of speech.

-Such students also don’t understand that “the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.”

The problem is that, except for severely language impaired children (and non-native speakers), these basic facts about the English language are among the things that children do pick up incidentally, without formal instruction, and master well before high school. (Mastering the written aspects of language, including the conventions that are specific to writing, is a different story).

Does anyone seriously think that typically developing native high school students, however socio-economically underprivileged, don’t know how to use and and or?

As for although and despite, while it’s possible that these specific words don’t figure much in the everyday speech of socio-economically underprivileged children, how likely is it, if you said something like “Although the hurricane won’t hit for a couple of days, you should start getting ready for it now” or “Despite the fact that we haven’t lost electricity yet, we might still lose it later,” they wouldn’t understand what you meant? Has anyone even bothered to test this?

The notion that the students in question don’t know these crucial function words comes partly from observations about their written language: “the students’ sentences were short and disjointed” and deficient in function words; partly from their performance on a “quick quiz” that required them to use these function words; and partly from their performance on a task that combined reading comprehension and writing: reading a passage from Of Mice and Men and then writing a sentence based on the passage that began “Although George...”

In this last task:

Many were stumped. More than a few wrote the following: “Although George and Lenny were friends.”
As a linguist who specializes in grammar, reading comprehension, and the mechanics of writing, I’d like to suggest an alternative explanation for what Tyre and others are observing here: these students are showing a combination of difficulties with reading comprehension, difficulties with writing conventions, and difficulties sustaining attention.

These high school students know perfectly well what for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so, although and despite mean, and how to use them. And, as the article observes, “the students who couldn’t write well seemed capable, at the very least, of decoding simple sentences.”

However, the article provides no evidence about their reading comprehension—and how many of them, for example, comprehend at the level of Of Mice and Men. While they surely understand the basic function words of their native language, perhaps they don’t understand all of nouns and adjectives used by Steinbeck. Perhaps (especially if they encounter words they don’t know) they aren’t able to sustain attention across some of his longer, more complex sentences. And while they surely could use the word “although” correctly in oral speech, perhaps they haven’t been instructed in the basics of punctuation and sentence fragments vs. complete sentences. All this could result in a fragment like Although George and Lenny were friends. when what the teacher was looking for instead was Although George worked very hard, he could not attain the American Dream.

And all this is consistent with the efficacy of the remediation program adopted by the school that the article profiles:
The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children … are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own.
Prompting children to use certain function words, and also appositives, prompts them to practice writing longer, more complex sentences. Helping students comprehend paragraphs improves their ability to write responses to reading passages.
By fall 2009, nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject. So in chemistry class in the winter of 2010, Monica DiBella’s lesson on the properties of hydrogen and oxygen was followed by a worksheet that required her to describe the elements with subordinating clauses—for instance, she had to begin one sentence with the word although.

Although ... “hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion,” Monica wrote, “a compound of them puts out fires.”

Unless ... “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they are explosive and dangerous.”  
If …  
This was a hard one. Finally, she figured out a way to finish the sentence. If … “hydrogen and oxygen form a compound, they lose their original properties of being explosive and supporting combustion.”
Notice that what’s hard about this task isn’t the meaning of the function words and how to use them, but understanding the chemistry of hydrogen and oxygen well enough to know their relevant causal and contrastive properties. The issue is both reading comprehension and subject-specific mastery. But the task is still a good one, because what the although, unless, and if prompts do is to prompt Monica to review the lesson with the specific goal of finding the causal and contrastive relationships it discusses.
As her understanding of the parts of speech grew, Monica’s reading comprehension improved dramatically. “Before, I could read, sure. But it was like a sea of words,” she says. “The more writing instruction I got, the more I understood which words were important.”
When you’re prompted to look in a text for the kinds of relationships expressed by although and if, you know that you should specifically be looking for words like although and if. This kind of focus may help students overcome difficulties sustaining attention, such that complex texts become something more meaningful than a “sea of words.”

The Hochman method is a great antidote to the current fads in writing instruction, but not for most of the reasons suggested in Tyre’s article.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Real-world group work

One of the justifications given by today's educators for making students spend so much of their days working in groups is that it will prepare them for today's cooperative workplace environments. As in so many other ways, today's educators assume that the relevant classroom dynamics mimic those of the real world.

Real-world workplace cooperation bears little ressemblance to what happens in classrooms. Today's prefered teacher-assigned, mixed-ability classroom groupings look nothing like groupings of professionals collaborating with related professionals. In most workplace collaborations, most of the work is divvied up and done separately by individuals. And often the groups are at least somewhat hierarchical, with professionally-trained leaders with significant influence over how cooperative and productive the group is.

Here are some findings reported in a recent Wall Street Journal article:

Bosses matter a lot, according to a study of a large technology firm whose operations, closely monitored by computer, provided ready measures of productivity.
Going from a boss in the bottom 10% of quality to one in the top 10% improved productivity among the supervised employees by as much as adding another worker to a nine-member team.
Going from a boss in the bottom 10% of quality to one in the top 10% improved productivity among the supervised employees by as much as adding another worker to a nine-member team. More surprising, the boss made his or her biggest contribution not by motivating workers but by teaching more productive skills. [Boldface mine.]
So much for motivational cheer leading--at least in the workplace. And, given that the closest thing classrooms have to bosses are teachers, there may be something suggestive here about how teachers can help students become more productive.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Math problems of the week: Interactive Math Program vs. Singapore Math

I. The first four polygons problems in Interactive Mathematics Program 1 (intended for 10th graders):

II. The first polygons problem set in Singapore Math, Primary Mathematics 6B Workbook (intended for 6th graders):

III. Extra Credit

In A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink argues that analytical skills can be outsourced to Asia, and that Americans should be focusing on open-ended problem solving and creatitivy.

1. How does the Interactive Math Program problem set contribute to Pink's priorities?

2. Why do you think Pink has become so popular with American education experts?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The unsung virtues of multiple choice tests

Personally, I'm not a big fan of multiple choice tests. I'm not a great multiple choice test-taker. I'm not particularly good at the kinds of things most often measured by multiple choice tests--recall of specific facts and labels; rapid, accurate calculations--nor are these skills I particularly value. I often find more than one choice arguably correct, and I often wish there were space for justifying one's answers. Finally, as a teacher, I find it much more difficult to design a good multiple choice test than to write a good essay question.

However, given what often are highly problematic alternatives, I've come to view the multiple choice option as often the least bad. Multiple choice tests are much easier to score, and leave much less room for subjectivity in scoring, than essay tests and other open-ended tests. They're therefore easier to standardize or norm across large, diverse populations. Standardization, in turn, is the basis for predictive power. In the case of standardized, normed multiple tests tests like SATs or the Raven's Progressive Matrices IQ test, the test's predictive power is quite strong. Studies show the Raven's to be the best single predictor of performance on a wide variety of other intelligence tests (see reference here). And the SAT tests (as well as the various standardized IQ tests) are significant predictors of success in college.

As we all know, there is one part of the SATs that deviates from the multiple choice format, namely, the essay on the SAT writing test. But its objectivity and predictive power are notoriously weak--as we see, for example, when professional writers (for example Catherine Johnson of kitchentablemath, who has had excerpts of her best selling book showcased on the SAT reading test) earn significantly less than perfect scores.

As it turns out, there's at least one other advantage of multiple choice over other formats. An article in last weekend's Wall Street Journal on the cognitive benefits of test taking reports particular benefits for multiple choice tests:

Exams have long been known to facilitate later recall, and a student tested after initial study of a subject retains more learning than if he or she studies longer but isn't tested right away. Exams have long been known to facilitate later recall, and a student tested after initial study of a subject retains more learning than if he or she studies longer but isn't tested right away. In a new paper, a psychologist surveying relevant literature has found that testing had "robust benefits" when it came to students' ability to apply their learning in different contexts—presumably the point of school.
Another recent paper supports multiple-choice tests. In an experiment with undergraduates, a multiple-choice test improved recall more than a test without answer choices. Also, a multiple-choice test apparently can improve retrieval of facts used on the test as incorrect answers.
I have worried from time to time that the presence of these wrong choices (aka "distractors") in multiple choice tests could result in mislearning, but perhaps I was wrong.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Embodied learning"

I'm finding it hard to keep up with the bandwagon of breathless articles on the unproven virtues of technology in the classroom--and with Edweek in particular, which has been championing unproven fad-driven reform like there's no tomorrow. One of its latest articles opens as follows:

Zachary Benedek usually can't wait for science class to be over. But when he learns about concepts like light and gravity in a 15-square-foot digitally enhanced laboratory called the SMALLab, he doesn't want the period to end.

Waving a wand in front of colors and circles projected on the floor of the lab, he and his classmates worked together recently to blend colors in a unit on the electromagnetic spectrum for science class.
Zachary's school is Elizabeth Forward Middle School in Elizabeth, Pa:
Last month, the school built one of the nation's first "embodied learning" labs, a technological platform that combines learning sciences and human-computer interaction by incorporating students' body movements into the lesson. For example, a student learning about chemistry would be able to grab and combine molecules in a virtual flask projected on a floor mat through the use of motion-capture cameras that sense movement and body position.
The concept is "Embodied Learning," and it appears to owe something to Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences, in particular, the Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence and the Inter-Personal Intelligence:
The basic idea behind embodied learning is that students who fully use their bodies to learn are more engaged in the lesson than they would be simply sitting at a desk or computer.
The article cites David Birchfield, one of SMALLab's creators, as saying that "by combining concepts like kinetic learning and collaborative learning, students are able to absorb information more effectively."

The academic possibilities, apparently, are endless:
While many of the lessons deal with learning in the stem subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—Mr. Birchfield cited a scenario that involves students' bodies symbolically filling in for a character in a novel. If they want to access information about their characters' thought processes, for example, students tap their own heads, or for content about characters' emotions, they touch their own hearts.
"Some content seems to lend itself more to embodiment, but just about everything can be taught in an embodied way," said Mina Johnson-Glenberg, an ASU professor of psychology and the co-founder of SMALLab Learning LLC, a for-profit company based in Los Angeles that creates and disseminates embodied-learning models for middle and high schools.
And, while the software isn't free, one can always get grants from cash-strapped, technology-obsessed departments of education:
With a cost of $35,000, the SMALLab isn't exactly cheap, but Forward Middle School had some help. The school received a $20,000 grant from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a branch of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, as part of a STEM initiative. The 2,600-student Elizabeth Forward school district paid the remaining $15,000.
It's good to know that Pennsylvania's limited funds for education--which have resulted in cuts to special education and increases in class size overall--are going somewhere so promising:
Christopher Dede, a professor of learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said embodied learning has potential, but there is little academic evidence to suggest the results are conclusively worth the cost, as the field has not yet been thoroughly researched.
After all, there's been some "positive feedback" from students and teachers at Elizabeth Forward:
Since the lab at Elizabeth Forward Middle School was completed just a few months ago, there is no clear indication of its effectiveness in improving students' test scores. But Principal Michael Routh said he has received positive feedback on the SMALLab from students and teachers, and he believes physical activity could help boost engagement among students.

"When you give students a chance to get out of their seats, they really seem to enjoy the lessons," he said.
It occurs to me that one can take all this one step further. Perhaps some day we can replace virtual reality with Reality. Instead of waving wands in front of projected images to explore gravity and blend colors, students could pick up and drop objects in 3D space and manipulate actual 3D light-emitting devices and prisms! Instead of grabbing and combining molecules in a virtual flask projected on a floor mat, students could use actual chemicals and actual flasks! And instead of accessing information about their characters' thought processes by tapping their own heads, or about characters' emotions by touching their own hearts, they could pick up an actual 3D book and read it!

I admit, this may be going a bit far. But sometimes it's interesting to take one of these revolutionary ideas and run with it to its logical conclusion.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Math problems of the week: 7th grade Connected Math vs. 6th grade Singapore Math

I. The final assignment of the rectangular prisms section of the volume chapter ("Filling and Wrapping: Three Dimensional Measurement") of Connected Mathematics 2 Grade Seven: [click to enlarge]:

II. The final assignment of the volume chapter ("Volume") of the 6th grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 6B Workbook [click to enlarge]:

III. Extra Credit
Comment on the connections between mathematical challenge, open-endedness, and "real-world" vs. contrived problems.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Responsive classroom: more howlers from Edweek

The education establishment is enamored of “social and emotional learning programs” that, in the words of a recent edition of Edweek, “focus on teaching students how to manage emotions and their behaviors and interactions with others.” One example is Responsive Classroom, which focuses, in particular, on “teacher language and modeling expectations.”

So it’s no surprise that this very Edweek article enthusiastically reports on a study showing positive effects for Responsive Classrooms. Its opening paragraph:

Fifth graders in schools where teachers faithfully used the Responsive Classroom teaching approach performed better on statewide assessments of mathematics and reading skills than their peers at schools that did not use the social-emotional-learning program’s strategies as much, according to new research presented at a national conference here [in Washington] last week.
Particularly grateful for these results were several prominent education leaders who had been hungry for data to confirm their beliefs: “When there’s top-notch research like [Ms. Rimm-Kaufman’s] showing positive effects academically for social- and emotional-learning programs, it’s a great contribution,” said Paul Goren, the vice president for research and knowledge use at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, in Chicago.

(Presumably a top-notch study showing neutral or negative effects wouldn’t have been such a great contribution).

The article continues:
The findings were also welcomed by Gretchen L. Bukowick, the director of professional-service delivery for the Northeast Foundation for Children, the Turners Falls, Mass.-based organization that developed the Responsive Classroom approach. “This helps us put some evidence behind what we believe,” she said. “Academic, social, and emotional learning all go hand in hand.” It’s a remarkable reversal of the scientific method, and of what constitutes scientific progress.
The study itself, to its credit, appears to have been well designed. Schools were randomly assigned to a Responsive Classroom treatment group or to a control group. However, it’s not at all clear that the results mean that more schools should implement Responsive Classroom.

For one thing, as the researchers themselves acknowledge, Response Classroom may be tapping what good teachers already do anyway:

The researchers also used surveys and observations to determine the degree to which Responsive Classroom practices were used in every elementary school in the district [even those in the control group], as the approach involves practices that may also be used by teachers who were not teaching in the Responsive Classroom schools.
The results of the study, indeed, showed that:
Schools in which teachers adhered more closely to the approach [independently of whether they were in the intervention group or the control group] had significantly higher math scores, especially for students who had had low math scores in 2nd grade.
Even within the group of schools that was not assigned to use Responsive Classroom, more-frequent use of the approach’s strategies was correlated with higher math achievement [a 23-point gain on state standardized tests.]
And, on the other hand:
Students in schools that were assigned to implement the program but did not do so with strong fidelity actually saw a small negative effect on their scores. In connection with this, Sara Rimm-Kaufman, one of the study’s authors, notes that: The dropoff in scores could also be tied to “something about schools and teachers that is both predicting use of practices and predicting achievement gains.” A school with a principal who was adept at helping teachers prioritize, for instance, might be more likely to implement Responsive Classroom with fidelity and also have higher test scores.
But this means that a rise in scores in those schools that use Responsive Classroom techniques might also be due to “something about the schools and teachers” rather than something about Responsive Classroom.

Finally, it would appear to be the more academic aspects of Responsive Classroom, not its social and emotional elements, that had the biggest effects:
Preliminary findings show that the program’s focus on academic choice, which involves allowing students to choose among different activities to accomplish the same learning goals, may be particularly effective.
None of this, of course, has any effect on Edweek’s conclusion--a conclusion which has been foregone among education theorists for at least a century:
The findings are part of a growing body of research showing that social-emotional learning can positively influence academic, as well as behavioral, results.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Friday, October 12, 2012

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

I. The first problem set involving multiplication and arrays in the 4th grade TERC/Investigations Math Student Activity Booklet [click to enlarge]:

II. The first problem set involving multiplication and arrays in the 4th grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 4A Workbook [click to enlarge]:

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Graduating from high school vs. passing the GED

One of the studies that Paul Tough has cited in various interviews as evidence that aspects of “character” like grit and perseverance trumps cognitive skills is that those who drop out of high school and get GEDs are more like high school dropout than like high school graduates in how well they do subsequently.

Tough’s assumption seems to be that the cognitive skills of those take the GED route are comparable to the cognitive skills of those who complete high school and earn diplomas. But if cognitive skills includes academic skills—and they should, or Tough is leaving out something really important—this is not a reasonable assumption. Unless you’ve taken a close look at the GED, you may assume that it’s largely a content-based exam, covering whatever material the test writers have determined that high school graduates should have, learned.

But the GED  is actually much more like a dumbed-down version of the SAT aptitude tests, consisting mostly of basic English and advanced arithmetic and data skills, including chart and graph reading skills, and not much at all in the way of content knowledge. What content does factor into the social studies and science sections appears in reading passages, charts, and graphs. Thus, what might look superficially like questions about world history or biology are actually reading comprehension questions and chart/graph-reading questions. Mixed in are a few items whose answers can’t be extrapolated from the test itself, but that tap the sort of common, everyday knowledge that many 18-year-olds will have picked up incidentally, outside the classroom (e.g., recycling and pollution).

In other words, you can pass the GED with no deep knowledge of algebra, no foreign language skills, and little knowledge of history, chemistry, biology, or physics. Of course, given the diminished instruction of so many of today’s schools, it’s quite possible to have minimal knowledge of algebra, no foreign language skills, and minimal knowledge of history, chemistry, biology, and physics, and still graduate from high school. But I’m guessing that students with high school diplomas still have higher average academic skills than students with GEDs.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Autism diaries, XXXVIII: death, revisited

Two years ago today, J’s grandfather died. But you can still see and hear him in archived interviews and on a multi-episode series he hosted for a PBS show. We haven’t yet taken these opportunities to see and hear him again, but we know we can if we want to. And, just the other day, I mentioned that possibility to J.

“Would watching a tape of Grandpa be the same as being with him?” I asked J.

“You can’t talk to him,” J replied immediately. “It’s like if a fan is broken and you watch a video of the fan when it was working,” he went on, delighted with his analogy. “You can see the fan, but you can’t feel it.”

Saturday, October 6, 2012

More Tough memes: grading students for “character”

Of all the chains of non-sequiturs emerging out of the enormous buzz surrounding Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, the most ridiculous one appears in the latest of many David Brooks columns on the importance of character (“motivation, self-control and resilience”).

The chain of non-sequiturs goes like this:

“An array of psychological researchers have taught us that motivation, self-control and resilience are together as important as raw I.Q. and are probably more malleable.” (From the column itself.)
Motivation, self-control and resilience are more important and malleable than academic skills (Academic skills—literacy, numeracy, etc.--don’t equal "raw" I.Q. scores and are highly important and highly malleable.)
Motivation, self-control and resilience can be taught in the public school classroom. (Malleability doesn’t mean teachability in the classroom; as Brooks himself notes earlier in the column, self-control and resilience depend primarily on the presence or absence of childhood stresses and trauma in the home.)
Students should receive grades for motivation, self-control and resilience. (Importance and malleability don’t justify grading; should students also be graded for how much junk food they eat or how much time they spend playing computer games and watching TV?).

Brooks notes, with approval, that “Some schools give two sets of grades — one for academic work and one for deportment.” He does not explain why this is a good idea. And, interestingly, neither do any of those who published (exclusively enthusiastic) letters in response to Brook’s column.

Perhaps this detail in Brooks’ column escaped them. Or perhaps this chain of non-sequiturs is part of a that broader meme on “whole child” education that has been mindlessly replicating itself within American society for generations.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

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

I. The last dollars and cents problem in the 4th grade TERC/Investigations Math Student Activity Booklet [click to enlage]:

II. The last dollars and cents problem in the 4th grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 4B Workbook [click to enlage]:

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Right and left-brain personality types?

[Fourth in a series on Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast and Slow]

Kahnemann doesn’t use the terms left and right-brain. His terms--“System 1” (for the intuitive brain systems) and “System 2” (for the rational ones)--nonetheless demarcate some of what I (and others) casually associate, respectively, with the vernacular terms “left” vs. “right” brain. Furthermore, in his discussion of which factors affect which system is dominant, Kahnemann implicitly suggests why some of the additional personality traits commonly lumped together under “right brain” or “left brain” might, in fact, tend to co-occur. Someone with a relatively dominant System 1, more intuition-driven, is more impulsive. Impulsivity (as Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point) is part of what people perceive as cool (in the social sense). Thus, System 1-ers tend, other things being equal, to be more popular than System 2-ers. Popularity and spending time with others is associated with being happy; being happy, Kahnemann reports, is associated with System 2 laziness, and, thus, with greater System 1 influence. Being less (or more) rational thus feeds back and forth with being more (or less) sociable.

In other words, the intuitions underlying the terms “right brain” and “left brain” may have a rational justification.

Are “right brainers” happier than left brainers? What I’ve written here would seem to suggest yes. But don’t forget all the fallacies that System 1 is capable of. A more rational person is less likely to stress out about remote threats, be manipulated by savvy vendors, and make plans that unexpectedly fall through. On the other hand, a more rational person is more likely to detect the randomness and the statistical flukes that govern many of what we’d all prefer to believe are purposeful, human-driven narratives.