Saturday, June 29, 2013

Creativity through left-brained analysis: Thinking inside the box

From a Saturday Essay in the June 14th Wall Street Journal by Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg:

When most CEOs hear the word "innovation," they roll their eyes. It conjures up images of employees wasting hours, even days, sitting in beanbag chairs, tossing Frisbees and regurgitating ideas they had already considered. "Brainstorming" has become a byword for tedium and frustration.
Indeed, there have been numerous recent studies that have debunked the supposed power of brainstorming in enhancing creativity.

More from Boyd and Goldenberg:
The traditional view of creativity is that it is unstructured and doesn't follow rules or patterns. Would-be innovators are told to "think outside the box," "start with a problem and then brainstorm ideas for a solution," "go wild making analogies to things that have nothing to do with your product or service."
This is certainly the view of creativity seen in standardized tests of creativity and interview questions that are supposed to gauge the creativity of job applicants.

Boyd and Goldenberg:
We advocate a radically different approach: thinking inside the proverbial box, not outside of it. People are at their most creative when they focus on the internal aspects of a situation or problem—and when they constrain their options rather than broaden them. By defining and then closing the boundaries of a particular creative challenge, most of us can be more consistently creative—and certainly more productive than we are when playing word-association games in front of flip charts or talking about grand abstractions at a company retreat.

Our method works by taking a product, concept, situation, service or process and breaking it into components or attributes. Using one of five techniques, innovators can manipulate the components to create new-to-the-world ideas that can then be put to valuable use.
The techniques are "subtraction," "task unification," "multiplication," "division," and "attribute dependency." Subtraction:
Subtract the frame of a pair of glasses and you have the contact lens. Remove a bike's rear wheel and you invent the exercise bicycle. Extract water from soup to make a package of powdered soup. Take the bank employee out of a cash transaction and you have an ATM.
Task unification involves "bringing together unrelated tasks or functions"--seen, for example, in Samsonite backpacks designed to distribute weight so as to massage the shoulders at shiatsu points.

Multiplication involves "copying a component and then altering it"--seen, for example, in compound lenses, bifocals, and double-bladed razors.

Division involves "separating the components of a product or service and rearranging them":
Instances of this technique abound, from airline check-in procedures that now have you print your boarding pass at home to the TV remote control whose functions used to be attached to the box itself. Or consider central air-conditioning. The first air-conditioning units contained all the necessary components in a single box: thermostat, fan, cooling unit. But once the motor and fan of the cooling unit were separated from the other pieces, they could be placed somewhere else—like outside a house, thus reducing noise and heat and eliminating the need to block a window with a bulky integrated unit.
Attribute dependency involves "making the attributes of a product change in response to changes in another attribute or in the surrounding environment":
An excellent example of this technique is eyewear with transition lenses, which change from light to dark in the sunlight. So, too, are windshield wipers that speed up as it rains harder.
For Boyd and Goldenberg, the best way to inspire creativity is to make problems less open-ended:
Most people think innovation starts with establishing a well-defined problem and then thinking of solutions. Our method is just the opposite: We take an abstract, conceptual solution and find a problem that it can solve.
For example:
Imagine a baby bottle and being told that it changes color as the temperature of the milk changes. Why would that be useful? Because it would help to make sure that you don't burn the baby with milk that is too hot. Now imagine you were asked the opposite question: How can we make sure not to burn a baby's mouth with milk that is too hot? How long would it take you to come up with a color-changing milk bottle? You might never arrive at the idea.
Very true. And yet today's educators are convinced that giving away the solution squelches creativity. Nor do they recognize that:
The most consequential ideas are often right under our noses, connected in some way to our current reality or view of the world. 
This, after all, requires us to analyze what is under our noses, subtracting, recombining, and copying--all things that too many of today's educators view as opposing rather than enabling truly creative innovations.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

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

The first 4th grade decimals assignments:

I. From the Everday Math Student Math Journal [click to enlarge]:

II. From the Singapore Math Primary Mathematics Workbook [click to enlarge]:

III. Extra Credit:

What are Singapore Math students missing out on by not starting out with Base-10 blocks and iconic symbols?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Uta Frith on school intelligence vs. world intelligence

From a passage in "Autism: Explaining the Enigma" (second edition, 2003) that I recently assigned to my class:

For success in a test situation, it is necessary to be accustomed to the idea of solving problems outside their real-life context. This idea is vigorously promoted by schooling. Schooling normally provides the opportunity to work on problems for their own sake and to acquire seemingly useless knowledge. The result is what we might call school intelligence, the opposite of world intelligence...I assume that formal education, like autism, enables people to disregard context and solve problems in their own right. Presumably, explicit teaching fosters the latent abilities of abstraction in the human brain. In contrast, the harsh "school of life" may suppress these latent abilities and foster the situation-dependent solution of practical problems.
Normal children everywhere do well when they understand and take account of context. This is not the case with autism. Here we have evidence of an unusual ability to disregard context. The ability to entertain a thought out of context (disembodied thought) is also typical of school learning. Consider the acquisition of literacy. When becoming literate the child must learn to free language from its embeddedness in everyday situations so as to achieve the ability to look at the sound of speech and its relationship to letters. Aspects of the words such as their sound structure are quite separate from their meaning but must be attended to in their own right when learning the rudiments of spelling.
Uta Frith is an accomplished autism researcher and a perceptive and thoughtful writer. But this passage suggests it's been a while since she's stepped inside a classroom. With the rise of balanced literacy, text-to-self inferences, real-world problems, real-life application, and implicit teaching, "school intelligence" and "world intelligence" are merging.

As Frith's observations about autistic learners suggest, all this particularly disadvantages students on the autistic spectrum. It's just that she doesn't recognize that it's actually happening.

One of Frith's observations has survived these changes: schools providing the opportunity to acquire "seemingly useless knowledge"--provided we replace "seemingly" with "actually."

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Inclusive Class Podcast

I had a very interesting interview this past Friday with Nicole Eredics and Terri Mauro on the Inclusive Class Podcast.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Math problem of the week: 4th grade Everyday Math vs. Singapore Math

The second to last problems in the 4th grade Area and Perimeter chapters:

I. From the Everyday Math Student Math Journal:

II. From the Singapore Math Primary Mathematics Workbook:

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Best Summer Math Project ever!

After all the community helper interviewing and festive meal planning and boardgame-designing and library-measuring projects, how refreshing to read the directions for the "Calculus Summer Project":

"You need to know all the 25 derivative rules on p. 2 as well as the trinometry rules on p.3. You need to fill out the chart on pages 4-8 and know these as well."

The chart? A series of functions, ranging (as it were) from y = x2 to y = cot-1x, with spaces for each function's graph, domain, range, zeros, symmetry, odd/even, periodicity, and whether or not it's one-to-one.

J will enjoy this so much more than the typical alternatives, and (since we won't have to chaperone him at libraries, shop for poster board, badger him through the entire process, and wonder about the all the opportunity costs and all that actual math he might be forgetting over the summer) so will his parents!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Education Technology Roundup: MOOCS

I recently met the technology guy for one of the most highly reputed private schools in our area. He enthusiastically enlightened me on just how revolutionary the latest technology-enabled classroom reforms have been. Not only are lectures dead; so are seminars. Apparently students sit in groups at computers and look things up.

Meanwhile, a recent New York Times article reports on a study that found that "no state was collecting data to evaluate whether technology investments were actually improving student achievement."

Technology within the classroom may have killed the lecture and the seminar, but technology between the classroom and the rest of the world has been elevating the lecture (not the seminar) to new heights. This new phenomenon, the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), suggests that the lecture mode, however dry and boring the edworld claims it is, is more popular than ever.

Is this a good thing? A recent New Yorker article isn't so sure--especially when it comes to humanities courses. It profiles Harvard Professor Gregory Nagy's “CB22x: The Ancient Greek Hero,” which now has over 31,000 students. In classes like these, online discussion forums substitute for in-person discussion seminars, scripted conversations with pretend students substitute for question and answer sessions and office hours, and multiple choice tests substitute for essays. Each has its problems.

Online discussions:

 “You have a group who are—they talk about Christ,” Kevin McGrath, one of the coördinators of CB22x, told me soon after the discussions started up. “Or about pride. They haven’t really engaged with what’s going on.”
Scripted conversations with pretend students:
When presenting Achilles’ kleos quandary, for example, he [Nagy] was sitting at a table with two members of his skunk-works [production] team, Claudia Filos and Jeff Emanuel, both posing as students. They nodded as he talked. Then Filos spoke up:
FILOS: So this one small passage, actually, has a lot to teach us about the whole epic tradition.

NAGY: In a way, it’s a micro-narrative of the whole Iliad, Claudia. I couldn’t agree more.
Multiple choice tests:
Nagy read... some questions that the team had devised for CB22x’s first multiple-choice test: “ ‘What is the will of Zeus?’ It says, ‘a) To send the souls of heroes to Hades’ ”—Nagy rippled into laughter—“ ‘b) To cause the Iliad,’ and ‘c) To cause the Trojan War.’ I love this. The best answer is ‘b) To cause the Iliad’—Zeus’ will encompasses the whole of the poem through to its end, or telos.”
He went on, “And then—this is where people really read into the text!—‘Why will Achilles sit the war out in his shelter?’ Because ‘a) He has hurt feelings,’ ‘b) He is angry at Agamemnon,’ and ‘c) A goddess advised him to do so.’ No one will get this.”

The answer is c).
"No one will get this." In one brief scene Nagy manages to underscore several big problems with multiple choice tests. When it comes to literary interpretation in particular (not math, not science), multiple responses can be astutely defended. Back in the dark ages when people wrote literary analysis essays, my English teachers repeatedly assured us students that we could potentially argue any number of points so long as we argued them well. But Nagy's cleverly inviting choices leave you no chance to defend yourself. While it's true that after you submit your answer, you get feedback about "the reasoning behind the correct choice," that reasoning doesn't (and shouldn't) trump alternative interpretations.

Second, while there are plenty of very good multiple choice tests out there (on subjects other than literary analysis), it takes a lot of thought, effort, and experience to devise them. Among novices like Nagy, there's a tendency to confuse teaching with trickery, and tricky choices with legitimately hard choices.

But Nagy claims, in the words of the New Yorker, "that multiple-choice questions are almost as good as essays... because they spot-check participants’ deeper comprehension of the text." And so sanguine does he feel about CB22x that he's redesigning his classroom course so as "to make the Harvard experience now closer to the MOOC experience."

To be fair, CB22x does offer one thing that most brick and mortar classes on Greek literature probably don't: footage of the mist at Delphi. In traditional literature classes, students are stuck with their imaginations.

But, as the New Yorker reports, "When MOOCs are a purely online experience, dropout rates are typically more than ninety per cent."

This, of course, hasn't stopped the juggernaut:
In the past two years, Harvard, M.I.T., Caltech, and the University of Texas have together pledged tens of millions of dollars to MOOC development. Many other élite schools, from U.C. Berkeley to Princeton, have similarly climbed aboard.
One factor, of course, is money:
MOOCs are also thought to offer enticing business opportunities. Last year, two major MOOC producers, Coursera and Udacity, launched as for-profit companies. Today, amid a growing constellation of online-education providers, they act as go-betweens, packaging university courses and offering them to students and other schools. Coursera, a Stanford spinoff that is currently the largest MOOC producer, serves classes from Brown, Caltech, Princeton, Stanford, and sixty-five other schools; Udacity, also the progeny of Palo Alto, focusses on tech and science.
Another is ego:
When Nagy decided to turn his popular class into a MOOC, he was thinking not only of its global reach—he’s already working to secure CB22x inroads into Greece, India, China, and elsewhere—but of the long half-life that the course would have once it’s circulating on the Web.
Aside from the replacement of in-person discussion sections with online discussion groups, live Q and A and office hours with scripted conversations with pretend students, and essays with multiple choice tests, there's one additional problematic substitution. That would be the lecture itself: the live, subtly interactive traditional lecture with its remote, canned, slickly produced counterpart. Towards the end of the article, author Nathan Heller discusses what it's like to physically attend a lecture given by Chinese historian Peter K. Bol:
He speaks energetically and clearly, gesturing briskly with both hands, as if making two marionettes dance. His jokes get full-classroom laughs. It was the first time I had been in an active university class since my time in college, and I fell back into old habits and a long-forgotten rhythm. I found myself taking lots of notes, college-type notes, notes more nervously dutiful and conceptual than I often take today. Once, when Bol was speaking, I glanced at my phone to see whether an important e-mail had come through. When I looked up, I found Bol’s eyes on me, and flinched. I had adopted again the double consciousness of classroom students: the strange transaction of watching someone who watches back, the eagerness to emanate support. Something magical and fragile was happening here, in the room. I didn’t want to be the guy to break the spell.
But Bol, too, is jumpting on the bandwagon--with ChinaX, "a survey of Chinese cultural history from the neolithic period to the present day."

As for me, I, too, must plead guilty to recording canned lectures and designing automatically graded multiple choice tests for online classes. But my classes contain no more than 20 students apiece, and I also assign essays and grade them myself.

And I, too, am a huge fan of MOOCs. But not because I think they can provide typical students with an appropriate education in the humanities. I'm thinking, rather, of my autistic son. J gets nothing out of the interpersonal aspects of classes and discussion sections, and nothing out of humanities classes. Nor will he ever feel the spell of the live lecture. J learns best when working through lectures and materials independently, at his own speed, choosing only the subjects he's interested in. Those would be subjects like math and computer science, which just happen to be suited to online instruction in ways that "The Ancient Greek Hero" decidedly isn't.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Autism Diaries XLIX: Animal ethics

"Take a look at this message I just got from your teacher: 'J was seen by other students today hitting a pigeon with his umbrella. He thinks this is a game. He calls it the pigeon hitting game. Is this new?'"
"I was bored. There was no ball or anything else to play with. So I played the pigeon hitting game."
"It's not a game. Pigeons feel pain. It's not OK to cause pain."
"But pigeons aren't people."
"That doesn't matter. They still feel pain, and it's not OK to cause pain."
"What about killing mosquitos?"
"Well, they bother us."
 "Birds bother us by pooping on us."
"Only rarely. And mosquitos die instantly when we kill them."
"Remember earlier when I killed a mouse by throwing the mat on it and stomping on it?"
"Yes. You did that twice."
No, J's no Temple Grandin. But, bugs and mice aside, he almost always avoids animals rather than bothering them. He's never so much as touched our cat.

On the other hand, he knows that he and the cat have one thing in common. And when it's the cat who kills the mouse, J's the one I ask to pick up the corpse and flush it down the toilet.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

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

A final installment in the comparisons of the chapters on circles sections of 6th grade Connected Math and Singapore Math.

I. The end of unit project in the 6th grade Connected Math "Going Around in Circles" unit [click to enlarge]:

II. The end of unit project in the 6th grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 6 Workbook "Circles" unit:

Actually, there is no end of unit project.

 III. Extra Credit

What do Singapore Math students lose out on by not doing a project at the end of their Circles unit?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Processing information vs. Ctrl + F, Ctrl + C, Ctrl + V

The most that many of today's students do in terms of processing information is searching the Internet by key words, searching within a site by key words, and then cutting and pasting the search results. This, as I discussed earlier, is far more mindless than other types of copying. Copying things word-for-word forces you to focus in closely on actual content; Ctrl + C Ctrl + V allows you to ignore most of the details. Instead of internalizing what little you pay attention to, you quickly forget it.

Internalizing information is the first step in processing it. By internalizing something, you extract its gist and integrate it into your long-term knowledge base, thus deepening its significance and making it your own. This, in turn, enables you to extract that information later on and process it in new ways--depending on the task at hand. Perhaps you are zeroing in on just part of it in order to answer a question, or integrating part or all of it into a brand new schema as your knowledge base broadens. Perhaps you are reanalyzing it in light of new or contradictory information. All these examples of information processing are several cognitive milestones beyond Ctrl + C Ctrl + V.

But in the Age of Information, when experts tell us repeatedly that there's no need to internalize anything because we can always look it up, we are less and less able to process the glut of information before us. Here are some symptoms that appear even in graduate level classes:

1. Extracting excerpts of "Internet research" out of context, not noticing, for example, when it is something that the author is presenting only to later assail with counter-arguments.

2. Pasting excerpts of "Internet research" into an essay without integrate it into the rest of the text.

3. Failing to recast the cut and pasted "research" so that it directly answers the question at hand.

4. Failing to integrate similar or related findings into a single sentence or paragraph.

5. Relatedly, organizing essays around articles and websites rather than around ideas. That is, devoting a separate paragraph to each article or website rather than to each idea--creating a repetitive disorganization of often disjoint ideas.

6. In discussion boards, preferring to start a whole new thread rather than recasting one's cut and pasted "research" so that it responds to previous posts within the thread.

7. In conversations more generally, restating opinions and findings rather than recasting or elaborating them in light of what someone else has just pointed out.

8. Failing to accurately summarize the research, let alone coherently outline it, let alone analyze it, let alone integrate it into other related or contradictory information, let alone make revisions on those rare occasions when teachers ask you to do so.

9. Asking teachers to answer questions that could be answered by internalizing and processing the information in the assigned readings.

The teachers showcased in a recent Edweek article (entitled Teaching Students Better Online Research Skills) recognize that there's a problem:

"They [students]  will go on Google and type a word, and that is the extent of their research skills," said Ms. Shaw, who taught 5th grade for 10 years and now teaches special education at Ralph D. Butler Elementary School. "There is so much more to doing research on the Internet."
But this "more" is all about how to search among websites:
She [Ms. Shaw] is one of many teachers and librarians who are explicitly teaching online research skills, such as how to evaluate a website's credibility, how to use precise keywords, and how to better mine search engines and databases.
Teaching students to be savvy online researchers starts with knowing how to use key words. That is something 6th grader Katie Lacey has worked hard to master.
"You need precise words," said Katie, a student at Albuquerque Academy, a private school for grades 6-12 in New Mexico. "If I'm looking up the John F. Kennedy assassination, I have to use those words. If I type in just Kennedy assassination, I could get information on Robert Kennedy."
But wait: beyond using precise search terms, there's predicting search results, changing search terms, and including unfamiliar words so as to land on more "academic" websites:
Another important skill to teach students is how to predict the results they expect to see when they type in search terms, said Tasha Bergson-Michelson, a librarian who works for the Google Search Education team at the technology company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Doing that can help them know when they may need to change their terms, she said. In addition, Ms. Bergson-Michelson advises students to skim search results for words that pop up, especially unfamiliar words. People have a tendency to skip over words they don't know, she said. But those words, when added to search terms, can lead to more meaningful results. For instance, if a student wanted to find information on immigrants who send money back to their home countries, the term "remittances" comes up on search results.
"When you change the search to include the word "remittance," immediately the type of sources are qualitatively different and more suited for an academic or scholarly pursuit," Ms. Bergson-Michelson said.
Then there are the search operators:
Using search operators, words, or symbols that join key words to form a more complex query can make searching more focused. Students can put quotation marks around their search terms to get results that include the exact wording. A minus sign eliminates something from a search. For instance, if students wanted to find information about the planet Saturn, but not the car of that name, they could type "Saturn-car" to narrow their results. Using "and" between search terms can give results that focus on two subjects, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Right up there with finding the right search terms is choosing among search engines, a topic deserving of its own special section and header:
Choosing Search Engines
Finding the right search engine or database is also an important step in conducting online research, said Frances Jacobson Harris, a librarian at University Laboratory High School in Urbana, Ill.
She encourages students to use Google Scholar, which includes academic and scholarly sources of information. Google Books allows searchers to read pages from books, and if the information is useful, a searcher can then find the book in a library collection.
No matter if many of these academic articles are way above the reading levels of many high school students: after all, Ctrl F + key word followed by Ctrl + C Ctrl + V does not require comprehension--or even much reading. Neither does "evaluating websites," which also gets a special section and header:
Evaluating Websites
Just as critical as smart searching is evaluating the information on the Web. Students can take specific steps to dissect a website, such as checking whether its URL ends in a .com, .org, .gov, or .edu.
In any case, students should approach websites with a critical eye.
"They should ask themselves while searching on sites: Who wrote this? What is the perspective of the person who wrote this?" said Rebecca Randall, the vice president of education programs for Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group that studies the effects of media and technology on young people.
"Or else while searching for information on African-American history, they could wind up on the site for the Ku Klux Klan."
In other words, evaluating a website means examining just about everything except for the details of its actual content:
To help students scrutinize websites, Ms. Harris uses a lesson called "Whodunit," which takes students to various sites and has them answer questions about who wrote the information, what their credentials are, and who is sponsoring the site.
Ms. Shaw provides a checklist to help students decide whether sites are credible. It includes questions such as: Are there dead links? Do images support the stated facts? Are there links and references to other websites, and resources and experts that corroborate the information?
Of course, judging a website's credibility by the rigor of its argumentation and the quality of its evidence would involve returning to pre-21st century skills--skills that some people think no longer matter in the Age of Information.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Constructivizing the Common Core, III

The authors of the Common Core Standards repeatedly assure us that the Standards don't advocate any particular educational philosophy. And yet as we see time and again, they are consistently being showcased by prominent publications as favoring the dominant Constructivist paradigm. Again and again we read about how teachers are struggling to assign even more interdisciplinary projects, even more discovery learning, even more group activities, and even more talking about math--all in the name of the Common Core Standards.

Here, for example, is the latest from the New York Times:

New curriculum standards known as the Common Core that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia could raise the bar in math. “As math has become more about talking, arguing and writing, it’s beginning to require these kinds of cultural resources that depend on something besides school,” said Deborah L. Ball, dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan.
It's not clear whether Deborah Ball sees this as a good thing; the Times article, on the other hand, implicitly raises concerns. Its focus is actually not on the Common Core, but on how much easier it is for schools to raise aptitude in math than in reading:
Studies have repeatedly found that “teachers have bigger impacts on math test scores than on English test scores,” said Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia Business School. He was a co-author of a study that showed that teachers who helped students raise standardized test scores had a lasting effect on those students’ future incomes, as well as other lifelong outcomes.
Teachers and administrators who work with children from low-income families say one reason teachers struggle to help these students improve reading comprehension is that deficits start at such a young age: in the 1980s, the psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found that by the time they are 4 years old, children from poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than children with professional parents.

Reading also requires background knowledge of cultural, historical and social references. Math is a more universal language of equations and rules.

Education experts also say reading development simply requires that students spend so much more time practicing.
All true, and very concerning in terms of what it takes for schools to close the achievement gap. Math, ideally, should be less of a concern:
By contrast, children learn math predominantly in school. “Your mother or father doesn’t come up and tuck you in at night and read you equations,” said Geoffrey Borman, a professor at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin. “But parents do read kids bedtime stories, and kids do engage in discussions around literacy, and kids are exposed to literacy in all walks of life outside of school.”
“Math is really culturally neutral in so many ways,” said Scott Shirey, executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools in Arkansas. “For a child who’s had a vast array of experiences around the world, the Pythagorean theorem is just as difficult or daunting as it would be to a child who has led a relatively insular life.”
Well, that's how it should be. But the fact is that, under Reform Math, language and culture are already embedded in math classes, to the detriment of those with deficits in reading and background knowledge. And along these lines, the article gets something else wrong as well. Quoting Linda Chen, deputy chief academic officer in the Boston Public Schools, it states:
While reading has been the subject of fierce pedagogical battles, “the ideological divisions are not as great on the math side as they are on the literacy side.”
Right. And pigs have wings, the Pope is Jewish, and the Common Core Standards are pedagogically neutral.

Friday, June 7, 2013

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

A continuation of last week's problems-- the next pages in the chapters on circles sections of 6th grade Connected Math and Singapore Math.

I. From the 6th grade Connected Math "Going Around in Circles" section [click to enlarge]:

II. From the 6th grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 6 Workbook "Circles" chapter [click to enlarge]:

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Taking things too personally: confusing debate with insult

In a recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Time's, Australian critic Clive James argues that American critics are way too polite to the people they criticize:

In America, consensus is considered normal and controversy is confusing. Zoë Heller’s recent attempt, in The New York Review of Books, to prove that Salman Rushdie’s book “Joseph Anton: A Memoir” was less than magnificent is a very rare example of a critical review in an American publication.
Immediately, as if a switch had been thrown, the review became more famous than the book.
But on the whole Ms. Heller said nothing that might not have shown up, in Britain, in a feature on the same subject carried by almost any serious literary publication.
Ms. Heller, James adds, is actually a British import:
Like the late Christopher Hitchens, she voiced her British acerbity in a polite context, and found, as he did, that the locals were wonderfully easy to stir up.
I've had similar thoughts in comparing us locals to the French. My venture in homeschooling has inspired me to return to my first second language and really try to master it as never before. And so I've been watching a lot of late night TV Monde 5. My favorite show comes on at 11:00 PM on Thursdays: On n'est pas couché. Watching it has me not only focusing on the conversational idioms and faux amis that make the end stages of learning French so forbidding to native English speakers, but also comparing its format to its American talk show counterparts.

Lasting several hours past my bed time, it opens with a pan of its stage: some dozen two-seater tables each arranged in a circle on the stage (a televisual theater in the round). To the dorky throb of The Rasmus' In the Shadow, the host descends into the circle and introduces everyone else as, one by one, they, too, descend and take their seats: the 2-3 other regular interviewers, and the 4-5 guests of the evening. One by one, for 20-30 minute segments (uninterrupted by commercials, of course), the guests each take turns. Everyone interviews them: both the regulars and the other guests. Questions are pointed; interruptions frequent; voices are raised; the cameras cut back and forth around the circle. At times the criticisms are fierce and even mocking, one gets mad.

One of the biggest cultural differences between us and the French, I've decided, is that we Americans take everything personally. Outside the formal debates of student debate teams and professional politicians, we studiously avoid face-to-face debate with friends, acquaintances and colleagues. Bluntly critique someone's words to their face, and you're instantly seen as rudely attacking their person.

The French are different. As I recall from my time in French classrooms, and now am regularly reminded on Thursday nights, opinions, even in face to face conversations, are decoupled from persons. You can say whatever you want to a French person in response to what they say without being heard as hurtful.

You still have to watch your words--but not because of the risk of losing friends and alienating people. The risk, instead, is that you won't be able to defend your criticisms when your interlocutor criticizes you back.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Great Levelers: Death... and Education

Around the country, school districts are eliminating programs for the most academically advanced students.

Some districts have changed the requirements for gifted programming to include non-academic skills, thereby excluding many highly capable students who aren't deemed by their teachers to be sufficiently socially or emotionally mature, sufficiently curious, sufficiently well-organized, or sufficiently "well-rounded" in non-academic ways.

Some districts allow only a tiny fraction of students into gifted/advanced classes, keeping everyone else in the same, mixed-ability classrooms. Citing official definitions of "giftedness" that are in fact arbitrary, mistakenly assuming that these are based on a well-defined, scientifically principled notion of giftedness, they decree that only a miniscule, pre-specified percentage of their students are "gifted" (1-3% is typical). And they studiously ignore the role that external circumstances play in determining what proportion of their students are, in fact, capable of more advanced work than what they offer them. In the case of school districts with large numbers of highly educated parents and/or highly dumbed-down curricula, this may be, in key subjects like English and/or math, as much as 40% of the student body.

Finally, some districts are simply eliminating gifted programs entirely, arguing that they are too expensive, that students at the other end of the academic spectrum have needs that are of much higher priority, that gifted programs are unacceptably elitist and unacceptably widening of achievement gaps, that many students turn out not to benefit from accelerated courses (perhaps only because they were selected primarily for their non-academic skills)--and/or that one can just as effectively meet the needs of academically advanced students by placing them in heterogeneous ability classrooms and "differentiating instruction."

Fantasies about differentiated instruction extend down the academic spectrum to the weakest students, including those with learning disabilities and other special needs. Somehow, teachers are supposed to be able to meet a whole spectrum of needs simultaneously by putting students in mixed ability groups and assigning them different tasks.

Similarly fantastical is the notion of what sort of free and appropriate appropriate education for special needs children is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Quoting the Wikipedia article on FAPE, this includes the provision that the child receives

access to the general curriculum to meet the challenging expectations established for all children (that is, it meets the approximate grade-level standards of the state educational agency, to the extent that this is appropriate)
That final qualifier, "to the extent that this is appropriate," is routinely ignored, such that many special needs students end up not receiving appropriate instruction at their actual ability levels, but only at their calendar-age-grade levels. The fantasy that all students can access grade-level work if only given appropriate supports has resulted in such wrong-headed practices as teaching dyslexic kids medieval history through an "arts-based approach that includes costumes, games, activities" and that minimizes reading practice; putting high school students who read significantly below the standard college-prep level in postmodernism seminars; and expecting students like J who are several years below grade level in language arts to somehow "access" Shakespeare instead of undergoing the kind of remedial reading instruction that would actually improve skills.

In other words, the fantasy that all students can access grade-level work if only given appropriate supports has become an excuse for accommodating rather than teaching.

Ironically, then, these one-grade-level-fits-all policies end up completely backfiring vis a vis some of their stated rationales: narrowing the achievement gap and helping society's most vulnerable children. These, I should add, include not only children with special needs, but also poor but bright kids who have always lacked access to extracurricular enrichment programs, and who, now more than ever, are getting less and less appropriately challenging instruction in school.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

"Mere" copying vs. Ctrl + C

As a number of commenters on this blog have observed, copying things by hand can involve active engagement and substantial learning--much more than is generally assumed.

Most people draw a big distinction between creating accurate drawings of actual objects or scenes, on the one hand, vs. copying, line by line or letter by letter, a picture, diagram, manuscript, or text, on the other. While the former may sometimes be worthwhile, the latter, surely, is the epitome of mindless, rote behavior.

But give it an honest try, and you quickly see that it's one thing to simply view or read a picture or diagram or paragraph or poem, and quite another to observe all the interlocking details closely enough to create a faithful reproduction. Consider, for example, what Catherine Johnson reports about someone who had to copy illuminated manuscripts by hand:

The library she was working in wouldn't let her make Xeroxes, so she had to painstakingly copy each character. As she copied, she suddenly became able to tell where each one began and ended and to recognize each letter as well (I think that's how the story went). I think this principle probably works with sentences, reading, and grammar, btw. If a student copies a sentence word-for-word, I **think** he or she is going to start to see the chunks.
It is out of these considerations that I routinely have my daughter, for example, copy maps and poems during home school--as well as read out loud sophisticated passages that she might otherwise scan too quickly to fully appreciate.

The kind of copying that's truly mindless is that which is preferred by our 21st century schools: Ctrl + C or Print Screen or digital scanner. A few strokes of a keyboard, however much time it frees up for other things, can never substitute for the focused attention and internalization of detail that good old fashioned copying puts you through.