Monday, September 30, 2013

Skills for success: let’s have less RULER and more SLANT

Has there ever been a time when most people didn’t believe the following:

So-called noncognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures.

There have always been legions of high IQ/high SAT scorers who go on to become remarkable underachievers. There have always been legions of straight-A students whose life trajectories are undistinguished at best. And there have always been legions of academically undistinguished students who, thanks to unusual levels of persistence, end up with highly fulfilling life trajectories, often making enormous contributions to society. And yet, statements like the above (a direct quote from the New York Times Magazine article I blogged about below) keep showing up as breathless revelations.

What’s new in the 20th and 21st centuries isn’t the importance of non-academic skills in society, but society’s emphasis on just one element of that non-academic skills triad—“self-awareness”—and, in particular, on emotional awareness and the sharing and processing of emotions. That’s what we see dominating, for example, in all those Social Emotional Learning packages that are proliferating around our K12 schools (and which were the subject of that NY Times Magazine article)--most recently, Yale University's RULER.

True, the third element of the "non-cognitive skills" triad, persistence (a.k.a. “grit”), did get some brief attention when Paul Tough’s book (How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character) came out a year ago. But Tough provided no guidelines for teaching grit, and, beyond a resurgence in grit-promoting slogans, grit doesn’t appear to have much of a mark on the classroom.

And yet, I’m willing to bet that grit (a.k.a. persistence) is the most important element of that non-academic skills triad—more important that self-restraint (there are plenty of hot tempered hotshots out there), and a lot more important than emotional awareness and processing.

The lack of grit in classrooms is ironic, especially given that you don’t need to do any special grit-based programming to foster it. The best way to foster grit, after all, is to make the school day more academically challenging. As I've noted earlier:
You develop grit by doing a hard math problem whose solution requires lengthy puzzling out; by answering comprehension questions that make you work through challenging sentences and paragraphs; by revising an essay in response to requests for clarity, economy, and coherence.
The problem is that this is happening less and less. As I also noted earlier:
It's true that students today, more than ever before, need grit. But the reason for this has less to do with the vicissitudes of the world outside of school than with what is no longer happening at school. And the solution isn't to send teachers to grit workshops, cover classrooms with grit slogans, and to interrupt academics with grit rallies.
The solution, rather, is to foster what happens in Japan, as UCLA psychology professor James Stigler, co-author of The Learning Gap, discussed last year in an interview with NPR’s Alex Spigel:
"We did a study many years ago with first-grade students," he tells me. "We decided to go out and give the students an impossible math problem to work on, and then we would measure how long they worked on it before they gave up." The American students "worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, 'We haven't had this,' " he says. But the Japanese students worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. "And finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up. And then we had to debrief them and say, 'Oh, that was not a possible problem; that was an impossible problem!' and they looked at us like, 'What kind of animals are we?' " Stigler recalls. "Think about that [kind of behavior] spread over a lifetime," he says. "That's a big difference."
What can American teachers do to encourage greater persistence? Stigler notes that:
in the Japanese classrooms that he's studied, teachers consciously design tasks that are slightly beyond the capabilities of the students they teach, so the students can actually experience struggling with something just outside their reach. Then, once the task is mastered, the teachers actively point out that the student was able to accomplish it through hard work and struggle. "And I just think that especially in schools, we don't create enough of those experiences, and then we don't point them out clearly enough."
Giving students more opportunities to struggle with something just outside their reach. Showing students what hard work and struggle can accomplish. With watered down Reform Math and the decline in challenging reading, writing, and revisions assignments, these things are happening less and less.

From persistence, other elements of character follow—particularly self-esteem. We’ve now learned that repeated iterations of “you’re great” have led to a surge of narcissism, that repeated iterations of “you’re so smart,” as opposed to “you worked really hard on that,” have led to a decline in effort, and that repeated iterations of “Never say ‘I can’t’” and “You can be whatever you dream to be” have set kids up for dashed hopes later on in life. The best way to foster meaningful and enduring self-esteem is through assignments that require great persistence but eventually pay off, and assignments that require multiple revisions that lead to a final product of which one can be rightfully proud.

Going back to Stigler’s study, what is the cultural difference at work here? One thing that’s notable in the Japanese students is their sustained attention. In our ADHD afflicted society, might this be part of our problem? It’s interesting that “attention” gets no mention among alongside “self-control, perseverance, and emotional awareness.” As I argue in an earlier post, it belongs at the very top. But few people seem to give attention much attention at all. One refreshing exception is Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz in a recent article in Slate:
Again and again, we are told in this information-overloaded digital age, complex and subtle arguments just won’t hold the reader’s or viewer’s attention. If you can’t keep it simple and punchy, you’ll lose your audience…  
The key point for teachers and principals and parents to realize is that maintaining attention is a skill. It has to be trained, and it has to be practiced. If we cater to short attention spans by offering materials that can be managed with short attention spans, the skill will not develop. The “attention muscle” will not be exercised and strengthened. It is as if you complain to a personal trainer about your weak biceps and the trainer tells you not to lift heavy things. Just as we don’t expect people to develop their biceps by lifting two-pound weights, we can’t expect them to develop their attention by reading 140-character tweets, 200-word blog posts, or 300-word newspaper articles.
How do we do this? Part of the problem, as Schwartz argues, is in the way that teachers and others have responded to the attention deficit epidemic. Instead of trying to solve it, they’ve simply keep lowering their attentional demands—shortening and simplifying their sentences and paragraphs. But, just like grit, attention is a skill that should grow alongside academics as problems get more complicated and prose more extended.

Unlike grit, however, a basic level of attention must in place before anything else can happen. As I noted earlier:
To teach someone anything, you need, at minimum, a window of joint attention with that person. As I know from raising an autistic son, when this window of joint attention is rare and fleeting, so, too, are opportunities for direct instruction. Joint attention with neurotypical kids is typically much more frequent and extended, but they, too, are potentially distracted away before you finish what you're saying.
Attention skills, as I noted earlier, and as the Schwartz also suggests, appear to be at an all-time low. Distractions, in contrast, are at an all-time high. This is probably not a coincidence. Nor are today’s distractions only about iPhones, websurfing, and social networking. Here in America, our classrooms, too, are more distracting than ever. Increasingly, they seat students in “pods” in which at least half of them don’t faced the teacher. Increasingly, they feature student-centered group work, filling classrooms with four or five simultaneous conversations. Increasingly, they allow—or even require—iphones and tablets in the classroom. Two vicious cycles result: the more distracted students are, the more they distract one another. And the more teachers and textbook authors and others who write books for children shorten their sentences and paragraphs, and the more schools let movies and other videos replace books and lectures, the less the text-messaging, video-crazed generation engages with any kind of extended prose—written or oral.

How do we get highly distracted students to pay attention? Ideally we make sure the stuff we’re teaching is so interesting they can’t help attending to it. But what if they’re too distracted to pay attention long enough to see what’s interesting? Many core academic topics (especially basics like phonics and addition), aren’t immediately gripping. Many interesting ideas can be expressed only in long sentences, and/or require some not-so-interesting preliminary setting up. In some classrooms, therefore, it may be absolutely necessary to lay some basic attention fostering ground rules before attempting to teach anything else. As I noted earlier, one approach that appears to show strong promise here, at least with some students, is KIPP:
Its SLANT (Sit up, Listen, Ask and Answer Questions, Nod, and Track the Speaker) is all about extending the window of attention so as to make it possible for students to learn from their teachers.
Many people dislike SLANT, finding it oppressive and artificial. Perhaps some of them will come up with alternative ways to foster the basic attention skills we need to jumpstart learning—and grit, and self-esteem, and all those other things that underpin a “successful life trajectory.”

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Does emotional processing in the classroom really lower anxiety and make us more successful?

When psychologists and education experts talk about emotional intelligence in the abstract, they include everything from emotional awareness to self-restraint and perseverance—especially when they talk about life success. In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught, reporter Jennifer Kahn follows suit:

So-called noncognitive skills — attributes like self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness — might actually be better predictors of a person’s life trajectory than standard academic measures.
But when psychologists and education experts talk about teaching emotional intelligence in schools, they quickly move from obvious statements like this one to a nearly-exclusive focus on the mushiest member of the self-restraint, persistence and self-awareness triad—reveling, in particular, in emotional awareness, and in the sharing and processing of emotions.

We see this, for example, in the various snapshots included in the Times article. Here’s one:
As the children formed a circle, Wade [their teacher] asked the 5-year-olds to think about “anything happening at home, or at school, that’s a problem, that you want to share.” He repeated his invitation twice, in a lulling voice, until a small, round-faced boy in a white shirt and blue cardigan raised his hand. Blinking back tears, he whispered, “My mom does not like me.” The problem, he said, was that he played too much on his mother’s iPhone. “She screams me out every day,” he added, sounding wretched.
Wade let that sink in, then turned to the class and asked, “Have any of your mommies or daddies ever yelled at you?” When half the children raised their hands, Wade nodded encouragingly. “Then maybe we can help.” Turning to a tiny girl in a pink T-shirt, he asked what she felt like when she was yelled at.
“Sad,” the girl said, looking down.
“And what did you do? What words did you use?”
“I said, ‘Mommy, I don’t like to hear you scream at me.’”
Wade nodded slowly, then looked around the room. “What do you think? Does that sound like a good thing to say?” When the kids nodded vigorously, Wade clapped his hands once. “O.K., let’s practice. Play like I’m your mommy.” Scooting into the center of the circle, he gave the boy, Reedhom, a small toy bear to stand in for the iPhone, then began to berate him in a ridiculous booming voice. “Lalalala!” Wade hollered, looming overhead in a goofy parody of parental frustration. “Why are you doing that, Reedhom? Reedhom, why?” In the circle, the other kids rocked back and forth in delight. One or two impulsively begin to crawl in Reedhom’s direction, as if joining a game.
Still slightly teary, Reedhom began to giggle. Abruptly, Wade held up a finger. “Now, we talked about this. What can Reedhom do?” Recollecting himself, Reedhom sat up straight. “Mommy, I don’t like it when you scream at me,” he announced firmly.
“Good,” Wade said. “And maybe your mommy will say: ‘I’m sorry, Reedhom. I had to go somewhere in a hurry, and I got a little mad. I’m sorry.’”
But what if she doesn’t say that? What if Reedhom’s mom is such a mentally unstable live wire that she will only flip out further in response to “Mommy, I don’t like it when you scream at me”?

The idea behind Wade’s "social-emotional learning approach” is that, in the words of Yale University senior research psychologist Marc Bracket, “If you’re very anxious about something, or agitated, how well can you focus on what’s being taught?” But what if being prodded by teachers to talk about the emotional dynamics of their home lives makes children more anxious? And what if, in Reedhom’s case in particular, the ultimate result is even more anxiety both at school and at home?

Here’s another snapshot—this one of 4th graders:
Sitting in a circle on the carpet, Anthony, a small boy in a red shirt, began by recounting how he cried during a class exercise and was laughed at by some of the other students. Asked whether he thought the kids were giggling to be mean, or just giggling because they were uncomfortable, Anthony paused. “I think that some people didn’t know what to do, and so they giggled,” he admitted finally — though he was also adamant that a few of the kids were actually laughing at him. “I was really sad about that,” he added.
Does recounting this, and being pressured to "finally admit" what sounds like the expected answer to a rather loaded question, reduce Anthony’s anxiety in the short and long terms? Or might this instead make school life even harder for him? It’s not clear from this article whether anyone cares enough to investigate.

Then there’s Marc Brackett’s RULER program, which I blogged about earlier.
In the Ruler cosmology, social-emotional lessons aren’t restricted to one class a week, or even to one class a day. Rather, such moments of observation are expected to pervade every class, from English and math to music and P.E. “Emotional skills aren’t something that develop overnight,” Brackett emphasized. “For most people, it will take a lot of practice.”
Starting in kindergarten, students begin each day by locating themselves on the “mood meter,” a set of four colored squares — blue for moods like malaise, yellow for excitement — that represent the four quadrants of emotional experience. (The other squares are red, for anger, and green, for calm.) The goal is to develop children’s capacity for self-reflection and critical thinking.
Critical thinking? Maybe it wouldn’t bother Brackett to begin each day by publically identifying his mood, but, for the more private of kids, such activities provoke rather than lessen anxiety, and they do so without enhancing any critical thinking.

But when it comes to Brackett’s program, it’s Brackett’s preferences that prevail:
“We never say, ‘The best thing to do is to take three deep breaths,’ ” Brackett told me. “For some people, taking deep breaths works. But for me, when I take deep breaths, I just think about how I can wring your neck.”
Thus, once again, it’s all about emotional awareness and emotional processing—and less about self-restraint. As for perseverance, it gets no mention at all.

Not that Brackett himself doesn’t show perseverance, inflicting his preferences not just on students, but also on teachers:
Even now, Brackett says, many educators don’t grasp the importance of emotional awareness. For Ruler to work, he maintains, the tools need to be embraced not just by students but also by teachers and administrators. “They have to be able to walk around that school and say: ‘Hey, where are you on the mood meter? I’m in the yellow right now. I’m feeling excited, how about you?’ or ‘Man, I had a really tough morning. I had to take a meta-moment because that parent was so crazy, I really had to manage my emotions.’ ”

Brackett tells Kahn that as a child he was bullied “horrifically” and believes that Ruler could have prevented this. But maybe it would have made it worse. Again, it’s not clear that anyone cares enough to investigate.

Emotional intelligence experts, for their part, are busy doing other things:
George Lucas’s Edutopia foundation has lobbied for the teaching of social and emotional skills for the past decade the State of Illinois passed a bill in 2003 making “social and emotional learning” a part of school curriculums. Thousands of schools now use one of the several dozen programs, including Brackett’s own, that have been approved as “evidence-based” by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a Chicago-based nonprofit. All told, there are now tens of thousands of emotional-literacy programs running in cities nationwide.
But, as the article notes several times, there’s little evidence that these “evidence based” Social Emotional Learning programs actually work:
It’s… still unclear whether S.E.L. programs create the kind of deep and lasting change they aspire to.
So far, however, few studies have been done on which skills are actually acquired through S.E.L., and even fewer have included the kind of rigorous, controlled trials needed to prove that acquiring a specific skill produces a specific outcome over the long term.
In 2010, a report from the U.S. Department of Education that evaluated seven different S.E.L. programs found no increase in academic achievement and no decline in behavioral problems.
But with thousands of schools jumping on the bandwagon, who cares?
A school interested in trying Ruler must sign a three-year commitment that involves regular training, including Brackett’s four-day “Anchors of Emotional Intelligence” workshop, which costs $1,800 per person. Though Brackett emphasized to me that Ruler is used by a variety of schools, in a range of income brackets, the program costs significantly more than Second Step, especially when teacher and staff training is factored in. (Only about 500 schools use Ruler.)
Only about 500. Second Step, meanwhile, has been adopted by approximately 25,000 schools in the U.S. and Canada.

Meanwhile, whatever happened to the other members of the “life success” triad: self-restraint and perseverance? Especially perseverance, which gets no mention at all? Perhaps our schools are reluctant to focus too much on this one, because that would mean making the school day more academically challenging rather than watering it down with mood-metering and emotional processing sessions.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

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

Words to numbers problems in 4th grade Investigations and Singapore Math.

I. The only words to numbers problem in the 4th grade Investigations Student Activity Book, "Landmarks and Large Numbers Unit" [click to enlarge]:

II. From the first words to numbers problem set in 4th grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 4A Workbook (the very first problem set in the book):

III. Extra Credit

Some critics have said that Singapore Math isn't workable in the U.S. because the Singaporean and American cultures are so different. Discuss how cultural differences might explain the difference in orders of magnitude in these words-to-numbers problems.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The decline of specialized education, continued

Increasingly, our special ed students aren’t getting the instruction they need. Underlying this are multiple forces:

1. The decline in direct, structured instruction, which all students need, but special ed students especially.

2. The notion that remediation lowers expectations and amounts to tedious drill and kill and the same thing “over and over again.” and the resulting decline in dedicated programs that are truly remedial.

3. The decline in ability based grouping and the rise of mainstreaming and heterogeneous group work, such that students of all abilities, including highly challenged students, are required to work together in heterogeneous groups. All the worse for specialized education for special ed students delivered by special ed-trained professionals rather than by classroom peers.

4. The rise of the Common Core State Standards, which assign the same goals to all students at a given grade level regardless of actual ability—many of these goals being out of reach of special needs students—while providing no roadmap for getting there, even for typical students.

5. The rise of computerized educational packages, a medium that could theoretically customize instruction for all sorts of special needs, but is very far from its promise of delivering even halfway decent instruction to anyone.

6. The rise of Augmentative and Alternative Communication devices and simplified texts that, as I've discussed below, too often become excuses not to teach.

7. The related tendency to manage rather than instruct special needs children, especially those on the autistic spectrum, with calming devices like weighted vests, beanbag chairs, and Risperidone, when the underlying problem may that the lesson content isn’t sufficiently accessible or engaging.

8. A tendency, especially with the rise of support staff working one-on-one with specific children, to provide heavy guidance in the assigned tasks to those with special needs, without leading them towards autonomy.

9. The popularity of learning styles theory, which has lead to a proliferation of alternative assignments (e.g., posters instead of essays, and movies instead of plays and novels in language arts classes) that often bypass the skills supposedly being taught.

10. The growing number of plays and novels that have movie or audio versions.

11. A failure to follow-up assessments with review or remediation as needed.

Every year I have several opportunities to review student lesson plans for classrooms that include autistic students, and here’s what I’m noticing lately. Most students begin their lessons with an obligatory citation of the grade-level Common Core goals that these lessons are supposedly addressing. One student whose lesson involved a nonfiction text on sea animals, for example, cited these two Common Core goals:

CC.3.5.9-10.B. Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; trace the text’s explanation or depiction of a complex process, phenomenon, or concept; provide an accurate summary of the text.
CC.3.5.11-12.B. Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.
After listing the goals, the lesson plans then spell out the details of the actual lesson, including all the “supports” that will be offered to autistic students. These include things like visual cues for kids who have trouble understanding verbal information; “word banks” for children who have trouble coming up with the right words; fill-in-the blanks for kids who have trouble writing complete sentences; and lots of one-on-one guidance throughout. The lesson plans also mention alternative ways in which a special needs student might complete the final product—most commonly, for the many who have trouble with language or writing, some sort of visual display.

All in all, a rich assortment of accommodations: whatever it takes to satisfy those Common Core goals.

As important as kowtowing to the Common Core is assessing the students. And nearly all lesson plan duly detail their “assessment tools.” Today's preferred assessments are of the “authentic” variety, which means informal observations during class activities rather than formal tests in which students would be more clearly demonstrating their independent capabilities. And it's with said assessments that these lessons typically end. Almost none of them even mention possible follow-up measures.

Here’s what we actually need. We need to spend more time teaching our special needs students rather than guiding and managing them. We need to remediate deficits rather than just accommodating them. We need to assign students tasks they can do on their own, tutoring them and pre-teaching material as needed to make the assigned work truly doable, rather than doing part or all of it for them. In other words, we need to assign students tasks they can do on their own rather than helping them through what they can’t. In still other words, rather than over-accommodate in the service of unrealistically high standards, we need to stick to realistic goals and tasks students can do without excessive assistance.

As with teaching, so, too, with accommodations. Accommodations should be ones that help students learn tasks rather than ones that perform those tasks for them: enlarged print for the visually impaired, amplified sound for the hearing impaired, keyboards for those with severe fine motor difficulties, AACs for those with speech apraxia, and, perhaps most importantly, reading assignments at the student's actual reading level, math assignments at the student's actual math level, and extra tutoring for those who need intensive one-on-one instruction.

Finally, assessments shouldn’t be endings, but beginnings: wherever students fall short, remedies must follow.

Friday, September 20, 2013

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

Problem sets from the middle of the data units of 4th grade Investigations vs. Singapore Math.

I. From the "Describing the Shape of the Data" chapter of the 4th grade Investigations Student Activity Book [click to enlarge]:


II. From the "Data Analysis and Probability" chapter of the 4th grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 4B Workbook [click to enlarge]:

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The "normal" child inside, III

The miracle child who stars in popular accounts of autism has several unfortunate effects on autism families. One, his/her "story" raises false hopes. Two, it may lend credence to expensive and time-consuming but ultimately futile "remedies." Three, to the extent that the child claims to be speaking for all autistic kids, bearing witness to "what goes on inside our minds," and telling everyone "what we really want," s/he may be spreading misinformation about what autism "really is"--and further compromising decisions about optimal treatments.

Four, s/he delays our acceptance of who our own child really is. And five, his/her miraculous emergence and/or recovery diminishes our appreciation for the smaller miracles that our own children may sometimes exhibit: that moment of extended eye contact; that first expression of curiosity; that first one or two-word utterance; that revelation of unexpected ability.

The actual miracles of truly autistic children range from small social breakthroughs of the sort that parents of typical kids take for granted at much younger ages, to unusual non-social skills like multi-digit mental arithmetic and photographic memory.

For me personally, the actual miracles of J's that have impressed me the most involve him using his manipulative mind to compensate for his social deficits. Never is this more apparent than when he impersonates someone on his iPhone.

When he's not impersonating anyone, then even those who don't yet recognize his phone number can almost always tell it's him. This is because he quickly lapses into naughty words, questions about ceiling fans, or requests for people to make the hand sign for his favorite number ("Sign 2!").

But when he is impersonating someone, generally his father, he's been trying with growing success to pass as normal. Here's his recent exchange with F, one of the people whose ceiling fans he's hoping to get on film. He's pretending to be D, his father, and, as is apparent below, he had F fooled until the very end--despite the occasional grammar mistake.

J: J and H [J's sister] wants to come to your house. Obviously, it would only work on weekends because of school days. Any available dates? --D 
F: We don't have any plans to go away until October (Columbus Day weekend I think) 
J: That's good. How about Sept 7-8? 
F: I have a training sat morning. I'll check w/ C and get back to u ASAP. U. How are you guys? Kids started school yesterday but E missed today and will miss tomorrow due to throwing up... 
J: Any weekend in Sept is fine. [sic!] 
F: Ok. I'll come up w/ a date 
J: Sign 2
J: Sorry, that was J on my phone saying to sign 2.
J: By the way, H had been eating lots of tomatoes lately*, so just keep an eye on your tomatoes when she comes. 
F: Hmm. Are you calling me from a new phone? I have a different # for you. 2 phones? You calling me from J's new phone? Oh, and we always have tomatoes on hand :) 
J: J doesn't really have a phone yet. 
F: Didn't he get one for his birthday? 
J: He just got a broken phone so he can pretend he has a phone. 
F: Ah. 
J: Sorry, J was on my other phone. Don't believe him whatever he said on my other phone.
Unlike Carly Fleischmann, he'll never get on 20-20 for this. But those who know him well were pretty darn enchanted.
*J is always looking for opportunities to slander his sister with claims that actually describe him rather than her.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Reviving two dying arts: traditional touch typing and revision

The best cyber courses are those in which the medium is the message. By this I mean courses whose content is part and parcel of the cyber medium—the ones which, unlike online courses in the humanities, can automatically assess your input and give you timely, regular, and appropriate feedback. The most obvious examples are programming courses, comprised as they are by assignments that are best composed, tested, and evaluated entirely by computer.

Less obvious examples are typing courses. But here, too, the medium (the screen and keyboard) is the message. Software programs that teach typing, readily assessing the speed and accuracy of your input and automatically advancing you accordingly, are ideally suited to perspicuous feedback and customized, ZPD instruction.

Ironically, however, as “technology” classes have overtaken traditional typing classes in our K12 schools, the art of touch typing is on the wane. While many schools introduce these programs at young ages, there’s not enough follow-through, and many more children could benefit from working all their way through these programs. As things stand, while people type faster than ever on tiny keyboards with their index fingers or thumbs, the speed and accuracy of ten fingers on more traditionally-sized keyboards isn’t what is used to be. This is a rather ironic turn of events: word processing, after all, is an inherent part of the cyber-human interface, and that interface has pervaded more and more walks of life.

As far as K12 education in particular is concerned, the importance of fluent word processing did not occur to me until I started thinking about my homeschooled daughter’s writing instruction. She’s in 7th grade now, and I want her to start mastering the art of sentence and paragraph-level revision. There’s nothing more convenient for this than cut and paste, but this means first typing things out. So, as my first step in bringing my daughter’s writing instruction to a whole new level, I’ve taken her back to Type to Learn. Once she learns to touch type, her writing will improve substantially.

Ironically, the ease of word processing often makes writing worse—if what I’ve seen from my students is indicative. Here’s what I think is going on. Even people who never learn to type formally often find keyboarding faster than writing things out by hand. Keyboarding lets them output words and phrases at closer to the speed at which they pop into their heads. This, along with a misplaced faith in autocorrect, has turned many of the papers I see into unrevised, stream-of-consciousness “brain dumps.” Increasingly, my students don’t seem to give their papers even the brief backwards glance it takes to notice the red squiggles of Microsoft Word. Increasingly, their writing resembles speaking, complete with all those syntactic “false starts” in which sentences begin one way and end in another. A recent example: “Not only is it the words they are learning but people with autism often show language impairments in how they speak or say words”. We tolerate this in speech, but those of us who care about writing expect sentences to cohere syntactically.

Which is precisely what I will expect of my daughter—as a very basic starting point for good writing—once she learns to touch type.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

What happens when vocabulary stays "relevant"

From what I can tell, the pending change to the vocabulary section of the SATs isn’t just one of simplification (from “compendious” to “concise”), but of associated genres. Specifically, the sample changes suggest a switch from words found mainly in literary classics to the words that dominate contemporary nonfiction: from “redolent” to “relevant;” from “treacly” to “transform."

In this Age of Distraction, teachers already have had to assign texts that are mostly “relevant” to kids’ daily lives; K12 authors already have had to dumb down their vocabulary (and sentence structure); No Fear Shakespeare already often substitutes for Shakespeare; pre-20th century novels have already largely vanished from the classroom; and kids already do less and less unassigned reading. The pending changes to what’s now called the Critical Reading section of the SATs will only further fortify the barrier between today’s generation and the literary classics.

After all, for better or for worse, the SAT vocabulary lists do have some influence on which words the more ambitious students bother learning. And if terms like “redolent” never become familiar, that's all the more reason for even the most ambitious of students to steer clear of the classics.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

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

Introducing fractions of whole numbers in Investigations vs. Singapore Math

I. From the 4th grade Investigations Student Activity Book, "Fraction Cards and Decimals Squares" chapter [click to enlarge]:

II. From the 4th grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 4A Workbook, "Fractions" chapter [click to enlarge]:

III. Extra Credit

Which is more likely: that Investigations moves on to "Story Problems about 25," or that Singapore Math moves on to abstract, non-pictorial representations?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why the "normal child inside" myth just won't die

Ever since I posted my recent entries on autism and the "normal child inside," I keep seeing new reports of novel incarnations of this miracle child. The most recent appeared in this weekend's Philadelphia Inquirer: a profile of an autistic child by his father.

As additional material on the father's blog reveals, the child in question, now 18, spent his early years speaking entirely in echolalic speech. This means that he'd parrot back entire phrases verbatim during situations that reminded him of the situations in which he'd originally overheard these phrases. Eventually his echolalia subsided, and this left him mute. Never in his life, in other words, has this child spoken an original sentence on his own. But several years ago the family discovered Facilitated Communication, and their nonverbal teenager started typing phrases and sentences with "light support under the wrist." A recent sample:

my typing is good today because my brain is very calm and my badly coordinated body moves better when my thinking is calm.
Or, in reaction to a pending hurricane
getting ready for disasters is stressful work but being home with your family is more important than wasting time at gas stations. this will be a interesting event that might be a historical event or a big dissappointment. i think a historical event.
A child who types with "light support under the wrist" is visually indistinguishable from a child whose hand is being manipulated by the person who supports that hand. And in fact, in the best studied cases of so-called Facilitated Communication, it has consistently turned out, whether or not the facilitator realizes this, that it's actually the facilitator, not the child, who's deciding which keys to type.

There's another problem with Facilitated Communication in autism. Typically, the "facilitated communications" sound more neurotypical than autistic, evoking that normal child trapped inside, struggling to communicate, connect with others, express his love for his parents and siblings, and, often, speak on behalf of all autistic people in the world. But, as I've written before, the neurology and psychology of autism has shown that there simply is no socio-emotionally normal child residing inside the autistic one. Even the highest functioning autistic individuals, those who can communicate independently and fluently (Temple Grandin being the epitome), show, throughout their spoken and written communications, fundamental deficits in social awareness, cognitive processing, and emotional experience.

Why does the myth of the normal child inside refuse to die? Partly, of course, it's wishful thinking. And the hope, despite what all the brain research shows, that the core deficits of autism aren't social and cognitive. What a horrible thing to say about a whole subpopulation of humanity, some have objected, that it is so lacking in empathy skills! But take another (very different) subpopulation of humanity: the psychopaths. Should we ignore the truth that psychopaths are inherently indifferent to, and even may take pleasure in, the suffering of others, simply because that's a horrible thing to say about anyone?

But there's second reason why the "autistic but normal inside" myth keeps lingering. This has to do with certain misleading aspects of specific subtypes of autism. Consider, for example, two of the subtypes at the mild end of the autistic spectrum and beyond:

1. Fuzzy, borderline cases: kids who look mildly autistic in their early years, at least to some clinicians and lay people, but whose symptoms either fade with normal development, or who learn to "pass" as normal.

2. Normal inside and only look autistic. These are kids whose core problem is apraxia or sensory problems rather than autism. Their failure to speak, point to things, and/or co-ordinate their eye gaze with the eye gaze of other people reflects motor issues rather than social deficits. Or, in the case of kids with sensory problems, their withdrawal reflects auditory or visual overload rather than social detachment. Give them an alternative communication system that they can use independently (i.e., without "light support under the wrist"), or help them cope with their sensory issues, and their skin-deep symptoms of autism "miraculously" fade away.

Then we have, at the severe end of the autistic spectrum:

3. Low functioning and purely echolalic--i.e., everything these kids say merely echoes overheard phrases and sentences. But because their speech is grammatical, fluent, spoken with proper intonation, and (at least on occasion) apparently relevant to current circumstances, it may seem communicative to hopeful listeners. However, if the child isn't producing any original sentences that are similarly sophisticated, what "linguistic" knowledge s/he has acquired is likely just a simple association of sound patterns and key words to situations. Such associative learning doesn't include a real understanding of sentence structure and intentional communication. It's like the dog who seems to understand "Do you want to go outside?" because whenever it hears this sound pattern it runs to the door. (NB: I'm making a linguistic comparison here, and not a comparison of autistic people to dogs!) But autism specialists unfamiliar with the subtle linguistic distinctions between parroting and communicating will often tell parents that "your child takes in more/understands more than he or she seems to." Unfortunately, the opposite is more likely the case.

4. Nonverbal, no eye contact, and showing no attempts to communicate any thing other than basic wants independently--whether orally, with gestures, or otherwise. With whatever thoughts and non-basic intents and feelings they have thus completely invisible, these kids inspire mystery. They are, in a sense, tabulae rasae onto which all sorts of neurotypical propositions can be projected--especially with the help of a keyboard and a guiding hand. Ironically, their slightly higher functioning counterparts who occasionally speak in simple one to three word phrases may actually be viewed as substantially lower functioning in comparison--because rudimentary language leaves less to the imagination than no language at all.

The same goes for fleeting attention and eye contact, as opposed to no apparent attention at all. "They understand more than they appear to" is one of the most oft-repeated claims made by non-language specialists about the lowest functioning autistics.

Why have so many of these "autistic but normal inside" kids been appearing in the media recently? Perhaps it's that the most sensational debunking of Facilitated Communication occurred some 20 years ago. Memories are short, and a number of hopeful parents and credulous reporters/viewers may be too young even to remember. But current trends in education mean that more stories of "unlocked" kids than ever before are in the works.

First, the increasing inclusion of autistic kids into regular classrooms and the increasing imposition of a one-size-fits-all curriculum on all kids, regardless of special needs, means that teachers with autistic students and paraprofessionals who help these students are feeling increasing pressure to "unlock" great potential. They may now end up, willy-nilly, providing so much assistance to the lower functioning kids that these kids do very little work themselves. Combined with this, the growing assumption that all kids can and must meet grade-level Common Core goals may pressure some educators to believe that their students are mastering skills that they aren't even close to mastering.

On top of this, there's the growing use in classrooms of increasingly sophisticated assistive communication devices that may make it look like students are communicating (and understanding) more than they actually are. Consider, for example, the latest in what's called "text prediction" software:
A.I.type is an intelligent keyboard with revolutionary context-sensitive text prediction, auto-correction, auto-learning, undo/redo/navigation capabilities and cool (and customizable!) skins (WP7, Windows 8 and iPhone for instance). And also it “understands” what users are typing and offers word and sentence completion that help the user type just a minimal number of letters. A.I.type's smart prediction algorithms maintain the context and the meaning of the text, while making typing easier, faster and better, with the correct grammar, syntax and spirit.
Of course, now that neurotypical children are also, increasingly, struggling with basic communication skills, and using such devices themselves, the devices, the more their sophistication compensates for what's not happening elsewhere, may appear to be unlocking everyone's supposed communicative potential, further complicating the question of the "normal child inside."

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Emotional Intelligence brings empathy!

This shocking discovery was worthy of a headline in last week's New Haven Register.

Within the article, one finds pronouncements that are similarly astounding:

Emotional intelligence plays a part in a variety of human interactions.
“Emotions are fundamental to who we are as humans. If we don’t have emotions, we can’t do our work, we can’t make decisions, we can’t have relationships.”
The person quoted here is Susan Rivers, deputy director of the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University. As the article's lede explains: "Emotional intelligence is in the ascendancy at Yale University."

Yale, the same Ivy League institution that designed a new test that measures creative and practical skills and proposed it as a placement for the SATs, has recently jumped on the decades-old emotional intelligence bandwagon. This fall, it will officially open its emotional intelligence center. As the article reports:
The center, already operational, recently held its biggest training session to date, with educators from more than 50 schools across the country. They join 75,000 school leaders from more than 500 schools worldwide who also have had the training.
What exactly does the training consist of? It's hard to tell. In the words of director Marc Brackett:
“It isn’t a kit you can buy. It’s an approach. We are teaching the teachers and the kids. Some people call these 21st-century skills."
As the Register explains:
The training is known specifically as the RULER approach. It stands for: recognizing emotions, understanding the causes and consequences of emotions, labeling the full range of feelings, expressing them appropriately and regulating them.
Despite the gigantic number of school leaders who have already "had the training," much of it has yet to be developed. Purportedly in the works are instructional videos, games, and online simulations that will, in the Register's words, "illustrate emotional intelligence."

First train people, then develop the training curriculum... what's the logical final step? Perhaps, after hundreds of thousands more people have been trained and hundreds more schools have signed on and millions of dollars have changed hands, the center will conduct an efficacy study.

The ultimate goal? In the words of director Marc Brackett: "making Connecticut an emotionally intelligent state — one district at a time." How could anyone argue with that?

As for Yale itself, presumably it will take the lead in making emotional intelligence the single most important criteria for college admissions. In fact, it's already moving in this direction--especially when it comes to homeschooled applicants. "Yale wants to make sure homeschooled kids are not socially awkward," Joanne Jacobs reports. She cites Yale's admissions website:
We look for evidence of social maturity from all our applicants and especially from home-schooled students. Your personal statement, interests and activities, and letters of recommendation should speak to your ability to integrate well with other students and tell us about your non-academic interests.
As a side note, when it comes to impositions on home schooled children, we find another Yale-connected educational power broker. This would be Yale alumnus David Coleman, former lead architect of the Common Core and current president of the College Board. Coleman has been working hard to align the SATs with the Common Core--in ways that, as Paula Bolyard writes in a recent post on Pajamas Media, may pressure home schools to conform to what's going on everywhere else.

Now all we need is for the Common Core to broaden its standards enough to make emotional intelligence its Meta-Standard. After all, emotions are so fundamental to who we are that, if we don’t have them, we can’t make decisions and do our work.

Friday, September 6, 2013

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

Graphing problems in Investigations vs. Singapore Math 

 I. From the "Penny Jars and Plant Growth" unit of the 4th grade Investigations Student Activity Book [click to enlarge]:

II. From the "Data Analysis and Probability" chapter of the 4th grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 4B Workbook [click to enlarge]:

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Proposed fast tracks to reading comprehension

Renouncing drill and practice, as current fads dictate, means believing in alternative fast tracks to mastery. At least, that is, when it comes to what few academic skills our education system still values--reading comprehension often being first on the list (as arguably it should be).

This belief in an alternative fast track, I believe, is where the working-back-from-what-good-readers-do mentality comes from: the mentality that confuses correlation with causation. Good readers become so not because of their "habits of mind," but because they've read a lot and because they've absorbed a lot of background knowledge.

Another proposed fast-track to reading comprehension is to teach students how to make inferences--minus the drill and practice, of course. How does this work? According to presentations I've seen, the teacher "models" a handful of different sorts of inferences (text-to-text, text-to-world, and, most horrifically, text-to-self) and the child spends a couple of lessons practicing these, and then that's the end of the story. If the child continues to struggle with reading comprehension, it must be the result of a learning disability, or ADHD, or poverty.

Of course, the inferences that actually make a difference in education are (1) those that make the text coherent and (2) those that uncover its implied messages (its subtext). Mastering such inferences, again, means reading a lot and absorbing a lot of background knowledge. Reading a lot gives you the intensive drill and practice you need; absorbing a lot of background knowledge increases the chances that you will know the specific background knowledge assumed by a text. No amount of modeling plus practice worksheets can substitute for this.

One big problem in reading comprehension is that, in today's enticing distraction-filled world, students are reading less and less extended, challenging prose on their own. But the other problem is what's not happening in schools. Schools, for all their weekly book logs and 100-book challenges, are assigning less and less extended, challenging prose and making sure students really digest it. And they are teaching less and less of the core, background knowledge that the most interesting, challenging texts take as their point of departure.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Edufallacies: correlation vs. causation

It seems to me that many of the biggest fallacies in today's edworld boil down to mistaking correlation for causation.

For example, the notion that a higher percentage of students should take college prep and AP courses and get BAs. People who take college prep and AP courses and get BAs tend to be more successful than those who don't, so if more students do these things, more students will be successful.

Or the notion that acquiring certain "habits of mind" will make you a good reader. Good readers have certain mental habits like "metacognition"; encourage such habits in less good readers, and they, too, will become good readers.

Or the notion that involving parents in school functions will improve their children's success in school. Students whose parents are more involved tend to do better than those whose parents are less involved. Therefore, if the school encourages more parents to participate in school functions, their children will do better in school.

Or the notion that cooperative learning and hands-on projects are the best way to learn. Schools that emphasize projects and cooperative learning (which tend to have smaller class sizes and higher SES students) tend to have higher test scores. Therefore cooperative learning and hands-on projects will improve schools in general.

Or the notion that technology enhances learning. Schools that have lots of high tech equipment (which tend to be in wealthier, higher SES districts) tend to have higher test scores. Therefore, Smartboards and laptops and school-wide Internet access will raise academic achivement.

One could just as easily argue that uncertified teachers are good for schools. Schools with lower numbers of certified teachers (private and parochial schools) tend to perform better than those with higher numbers (public schools). Therefore you can improve schools by eliminating the certified teachers.