Sunday, February 28, 2016

Autism in America: gratuitous barriers to productive employment

America prides itself on being way ahead of the rest of the world in its treatment of people with special needs. And sure, the U.S. probably has more accessible buildings, studded curb cuts, and special ed support services per capita than any other place on earth. More therapists, therapy rooms, weighted vests, preferential seating, FM-systems, enlarged screens, sign language interpreters, text-to-speech, speech-to-text, assistive communication, IEP meetings, extra time on tests, offices of disability services, etc., etc.. The U.S. can probably also boast pre-eminence in pro-special needs lip-service--all that public advocacy, all that sensitivity training, all those feel-good articles, and all those Disability Studies programs.

But when it comes to people with High Functioning Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, we fall far short in a number of key ways. In particular, we’ve erected a number of uniquely American barriers to productive employment.

First, there’s the uniquely American “college for all” movement, which, combined with our growing obsession with credentialing, means that more jobs and vocational training programs than ever require college degrees—or at least strongly prefer applicants who have such degrees—including jobs and training programs that in other countries require only a high school diploma, if that.

Then there’s college itself. In most other countries, even if you do go to college, you don’t have to take courses outside your area of specialization. As a result, if you’re a biophysics major who can’t write a decent literature or history paper, you can still be confident you’ll get your degree.

But here in the US, getting a decent job means succeeding in a variety of different courses in college, including college English and various other humanities classes. And, for those on the autistic spectrum, such courses are frequently areas of disproportionate weakness.

College-level distribution requirements, in theory, need not be fatal to a bright, moderately autistic student. At Canadian colleges, I’ve been told, there are English courses specifically designed for computer science majors: courses that differ from those for literature majors. And even though American colleges do not tailor their English classes in this way, an American autistic student could, theoretically, satisfy an English requirement with a course in expository essay writing as opposed to one in the 19th century novel.

But current trends in American education, extending now all the way into college, are making the required courses less and less hospitable to autistic kids—even at schools that have a relatively small number of distribution requirements and profess to be autism friendly.

For details on that, stay tuned for Part II.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Math problems of the week: Russian Math, Math Kangaroo, AMC, and Math Olympiad vs. Expii math

Compare these with the problem from that Peg Tyre cites as representative of all of the above in her recent Atlantic article:

(Options for this last problems: bacteria, a ladybug, a dog, Einstein, a giraffe, or a space shuttle).

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The imperiled pleasures of parsing Austen

How many of today's middle school students (or older students), I wonder, can properly parse the second sentence in the excerpt below?

(Quick background: "she" refers to Elizabeth; Jane is Elizabeth's sister; Elizabeth has been away from home; Longbourn is the name of Jane and Elizabeth's home; Jane is in love with Mr. Bingley).

(More background, plus spoiler alert: Mr. Darcy has recently proposed to Elizabeth and explained to her how he talked Mr. Bingley out of pursuing Jane).

It was not without an effort, meanwhile, that she could wait even for Longbourn, before she told her sister of Mr. Darcy's proposals. To know that she had the power of revealing what would so exceedingly astonish Jane, and must, at the same time, so highly gratify whatever of her own vanity she had not yet been able to reason away, was such a temptation to openness as nothing could have conquered but the state of indecision in which she remained as to the extent of what she should communicate; and her fear, if she once entered on the subject, of being hurried into repeating something of Bingley which might only grieve her sister farther.
Here's a pop quiz:
Part I: Grammar
What is the main verb of the italicized sentence?
What is the subject of that verb?
What is its object?
Write out the full subject of "could have conquered."
Part II: Comprehension 
What is Elizabeth tempted to do and why?
Which factors are deterring her from doing it?
Complicating this sentence are:

(1) the now-unconventional use of the comma, which separates the subject from the main verb
(2) the now-unconventional use of the semi-colon to separate noun phrases rather than verbal clauses
(3) the out-of-date use of "such … as" instead of "that" in marking a relative clause

and… last but not least:

(4) the multiple embedding in both subject and predicate, which I've marked off by brackets below:

To know [that she had the power of revealing what [would so exceedingly astonish Jane], and [must, [at the same time], so highly gratify [whatever of her own vanity she had not yet been able to reason away]], was such a temptation to openness as [nothing [could have conquered] but [the state of indecision [in which she remained as to the extent of what she should communicate]]; and [her fear, [if she once entered on the subject], of [being hurried into repeating [something of Bingley [which might only grieve her sister farther]]]]].

Despite the persistence of Pride and Prejudice in classroom curricula and recommended reading lists, how many of today's teachers are providing the direct instruction that many students need, at least at first, to comprehend fully such sentences as this one?

Here's one way one might go about guiding students towards comprehension.

First, start with a much simpler sentence that gives the general shape:

Knowing this thing was a temptation to openness that nothing but indecision and fear could have conquered.

-- replace the clausal subject –ing ending with the more old fashioned infinitive (“knowing” -> “to know”)
--flesh out a bit more the object of “know”
--replace the more modern relativize clause marker “that” (“a temptation that”) with the more old-fashioned “such…. as” (“such a temptation as”)
--extrapose the “but a state of indecision and her fear” away from “nothing” to the end of the sentence:

To know that she had the power of revealing this was such a temptation to openness as nothing could have conquered but a state of indecision and her fear.

--flesh out a bit the object of “reveal”
--add modifiers to “state of indecision” and “her fear”:

To know that she had the power of revealing what would astonish Jane and gratify herself was such a temptation to openness as nothing could have conquered but the state of indecision in which she remained, and her fear of being hurried into something.

--add qualifiers to “astonish” and "gratify"
--flesh out a bit more the object of “gratify”
--place a comma between the subject and the main verb:

To know that she had the power of revealing what would so exceedingly astonish Jane, and must, at the same time, gratify her own vanity, was such a temptation to openness as nothing could have conquered but the state of indecision in which she remained, and her fear of being hurried into something.

--flesh out "her own vanity" with embedding and modifiers;
--add a modifier to "remained";
--place a conditional appositive after "her fear";
--change the comma before "her fear" to a semi-colon:

To know that she had the power of revealing what would so exceedingly astonish Jane, and must, at the same time, gratify whatever of her own vanity she had not yet been able to reason away, was such a temptation to openness as nothing could have conquered but the state of indecision in which she remained as to the extent of what she should communicate; and her fear, if she once entered on the subject, of being hurried into repeating something of Bingley which might only grieve her sister farther.

Perhaps I'd be surprised at the number of kids who could pass my pop quiz without help. But, in this age of student-centered discovery in the classroom and record-low levels of independent reading, particularly of pre-20th century literature, at home, I'm guessing that more students than ever are stymied by these wonderful 19th century sentences, and, caught up in a couple of vicious cycles, increasingly shut off from much of what makes the classics so much fun to read.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Misrepresenting Russian Math: yet more excuses for U.S. Reform Math

In a recent article in the Atlantic entitled The Math Revolution, Peg Tyre discusses the growth of extracurricular math programs. More and more students, Tyre reports, are able to advance to levels far beyond what their school math classes are taking them.

An article like this one presents an opportunity to critique the shortcomings of school math classes; unfortunately, Tyre, once again, misses the mark. Notice, for example, the subtle bias in this paragraph:

Broadly speaking, there have been two opposing camps. On one side are those who favor conceptual knowledge—understanding how math relates to the world—over rote memorization and what they call “drill and kill.” (Some well-respected math-instruction gurus say that memorizing anything in math is counterproductive and stifles the love of learning.) On the other side are those who say memorization of multiplication tables and the like is necessary for efficient computation. They say teaching students the rules and procedures that govern math forms the bedrock of good instruction and sophisticated mathematical thinking. They bristle at the phrase drill and kill and prefer to call it simply “practice.”
Apparently there are no well-respected math gurus worthy of a second parenthetical who say that "memorization of multiplication tables and the like is necessary for efficient computation"--let alone for more advanced learning and for making math problems less tedious. For more on this issue, see Barry Garelick's excellent response to Tyre in Education News.

The extracurricular math programs Tyre focuses on include the Russian School, which she places squarely in the Constructivist camp:
The new outside-of-school math programs like the Russian School vary in their curricula and teaching methods, but they have key elements in common. Perhaps the most salient is the emphasis on teaching students to think about math conceptually and then use that conceptual knowledge as a tool to predict, explore, and explain the world around them. There is a dearth of rote learning and not much time spent applying a list of memorized formulas. Computational speed is not a virtue.
The pedagogical strategy at the heart of the classes is loosely referred to as “problem solving,” a pedestrian term that undersells just how different this approach to math can be. The problem-solving approach has long been a staple of math education in the countries of the former Soviet Union and at elite colleges such as MIT and Cal Tech. It works like this: Instructors present small clusters of students, usually grouped by ability, with a small number of open-ended, multifaceted situations that can be solved by using different approaches.
It's all there, supposedly: "conceptual thinking," "problem solving," open-ended problems, multiple solutions, exploration, real-world application, and group activities. The only deviation from hard-core Constructivism is that the groups are "usually" homogenous in terms of ability.

Of course, there is plenty of conceptual thinking and problem solving in any good math curriculum, Russian Math included. But, here in America, the terms "conceptual thinking" and "problem solving," pedestrian though they may be, are by now so bastardized by Reform Math that anyone writing about them needs to be absolutely clear about what she is talking about. When it comes to non-American math (and pre-1970s American math), "conceptual thinking" and "problem solving" have very different meanings from those assumed by the mainstream American edworld. Tyre's article, failing to acknowledge this, will only further entrench current practices: particularly, the emphasis on group work; problems with high ratios of verbiage and "real-world" application to actual mathematical challenge; and requirements that students solve problems in multiple ways and explain their answers verbally and pictographically.

That is not what Russian Math is all about.

Tyre does cite one problem that she presents as representative of Russian Math and its ilk: a problem from the nascent math-and-science site
Imagine a rope that runs completely around the Earth’s equator, flat against the ground (assume the Earth is a perfect sphere, without any mountains or valleys). You cut the rope and tie in another piece of rope that is 710 inches long, or just under 60 feet. That increases the total length of the rope by a bit more than the length of a bus, or the height of a 5-story building. Now imagine that the rope is lifted at all points simultaneously, so that it floats above the Earth at the same height all along its length. What is the largest thing that could fit underneath the rope? The options given are bacteria, a ladybug, a dog, Einstein, a giraffe, or a space shuttle. The instructor then coaches all the students as they reason their way through. Unlike most math classes, where teachers struggle to impart knowledge to students—who must passively absorb it and then regurgitate it on a test—problem-solving classes demand that the pupils execute the cognitive bench press: investigating, conjecturing, predicting, analyzing, and finally verifying their own mathematical strategy. The point is not to accurately execute algorithms, although there is, of course, a right answer (Einstein, in the problem above). Truly thinking the problem through—creatively applying what you know about math and puzzling out possible solutions—is more important. Sitting in a regular ninth-grade algebra class versus observing a middle-school problem-solving class is like watching kids get lectured on the basics of musical notation versus hearing them sing an aria from Tosca.
But this open-ended and verbiage-filled problem is not at all representative of the kinds of problems students encounter in Russian Math and the other high-level extracurricular math programs that Tyre is ostensibly writing about. Here's a link to some sample problems from the Russian School website. And here is one of the sample Russian Math problems given for 7-8th grade:
Solve: (x-4)(x-5)(x-6)(x-7) = 1680 
It is this kind of problem, not the problem, that distinguishes Russian Math from contemporary U.S. math.

And one of the biggest reasons why U.S. math is underserving American kids (of all levels of talent) is because it has too many group-centered discovery problems of the open-ended, verbiage-intensive variety, and not enough problems of the sort that are truly representative of Russian math.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Solutions for social, project-loving students: do things really need to add up?

In this past weekend's Wall Street Journal, Nikhil Goyal, author of the just-released "Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice," offers "Solutions for Stressed Out High Schoolers."

Goyal first discusses the "solutions" offered by Princeton-area superintendent David Aderhold, which I blogged about earlier this year. Goyal mentions Aderhold's abolition of midterms and final exams and his restrictions on homework, but not the restrictions Aderhold has imposed on a competitive math program and a summer enrichment program. Nor does Goyal mention the strong dissent of the Asian contingent, which comprises a majority of the school district's parents and students.

Moving on to other "solutions," Goyal discusses how some schools have eliminated AP classes, and how the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland has voted to replace final exams with in-class projects and tasks. Other schools

are aiming to give students more opportunities to explore their passions, work on real-world projects, and collaborate and learn from students of all ages.
The idea that some students might be a lot more stressed out by real-world projects and peer-collaborations than by midterms and finals apparently hasn't occurred Mr. Goyal. Nor has it occurred to him that midterms and finals are still (for now) a fact of college life for which colleges still (for now) expect students to be (psychologically as well as academically) prepared.

Tellingly, Goyal, who ought for his part to replace some of his armchair assumptions with more real-world journalism, cites someone whose name I instantly remembered:
The idea that education must be for life and "school needs to stop getting in the way of curiosity," said Ira Socol, and educator at Albemarle County Public Schools in Charlottesville, Va.
The Albermarle district has added music studios and spaces for hackers and "makers" to its middle and high schools in the past several years so that students can take chafe of their own learning and do interdisciplinary, hands-on work. At one middle school, students built tree houses in the cafeteria, learning problem-solving and technical skills alone the way. Students can now sit in the tree houses to eat lunch, congregate and relax. The schools have also begun to gravitate away from traditional exams and toward portfolio-based assessments.
Ira Socol is someone I blogged about a half-dozen years ago. As you can see, his beliefs don't exactly add up--at least for those who believe that 2 + 2 = 4.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Math problems of the week: new SAT math problems

A recent article in the NY Times raises concerns about the reading demands of the new SAT questions, even in math. The article links to the following sample problems:

Extra Credit:

Does anything else stand out to you about these new SAT math problems, besides the excess verbiage?

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Home schooling update, January, 2016

Of all the even halfway decent high schools around us, it’s the closest one. But it’s far more than decent. Known for embracing quirky kids, including erstwhile homeschooled kids, its Quaker-inspired social tolerance appears to extend beyond the usual types of tolerance to... the idiosyncrasies of personality. Not only that; its algebra courses use Brown & Dolciani. And, as one former homeschooler told me, it’s the only school they found that was willing, without argument, to let their child skip ahead in math. It’s artsy rather than sporty, and, judging from its studios and student art work, its visual arts program is first-rate.

The perfect school for H, as it turns out, has been hiding from us in plain sight.

Of course, it’s easy to hide if you aren’t being sought, and it’s only been in the past year that we all, H included, felt ready to reconsider regular school and see if we could find something optimal.

We found out last week that H was admitted for 10th grade, and, in the thrill of it all, we’re focusing our remaining four months of homeschool on preparing for next year. This includes adopting some of the 9th grade curriculum.

So, in what will be one of our last homeschooling updates, here’s where we are now. In English, we’ve moved from Job to Psalms, from Little Women to Jane Ere, and from To Kill a Mocking Bird to the Scarlet Letter. We’re finishing up BulFinch’s The Age of Fable and an anthology of poetry, turning next to what the school’s 9th graders are reading: Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales. When we finish up Pride and Prejudice, we’ll move on to The Walking Drum—the school’s text for 9th grade history (The Medieval World).

In home school history, where we’ve been alternating between 17th-19th century European history and American history, we’ll soon be finishing up the latter (Outlines of European History), focusing our energies on World War II to 9/11. H will be revisiting some of this material next year and beyond, but revisiting is good for retention and (yes!) higher-level thinking.

In math, we'll continue through Weeks and Atkins Geometry, progressing from polygons to quadrilaterals. But, as soon as we heard about school’s algebra texts, we switched from my mother’s A Second Course in Algebra to Brown & Dolciani.

In science, we’ll continue with Biology (Campbell and Reece) even though the school’s sequence is chemistry in 9th grade and biology in 10th. H can take chemistry with the 9th graders and the other new 10th graders.

As for foreign language, since the school offers Latin but not French, we’re putting aside formal French instruction and focusing on Latin, hoping she can jump into Latin II or III. But we’ll continue French informally with conversations while in transit and the Lulu books she still very much enjoys reading on her own.

The after-school art program for high school students will be easy to continue next year: it’s located just five blocks from the school.

Then there’s art history (Gombrich), piano (Bach, Mozart, Schumann, Chopin and Debussy), piano-violin duo (Dvorak), organ (Bach, Brahms), violin (solo, trio, and orchestra), and theater, some of which will stay, but some of which will probably have to go.

For, as with so many transitions, this one will be bitter-sweet.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A valentine to the 20th century library

They’re shifting from books to technology; from book learning to hands-on learning; from individual pursuits to group activities; from knowledge acquisition to broader life skills—all for the sake of the 21st Century. No, I’m not talking about schools; I’m talking about libraries.

According to an article in Education World, libraries

are increasingly developing their own makerspaces, or areas designated for students to build and create. More and more frequently, libraries are investing in 3D printers and similar advanced technology that can help students engage each other through activities rooted in innovation.
According to EdTech Magazine, the increase of makerspaces in libraries is helping the library fit into the modern world. "While the value of time spent tinkering may not be immediately apparent to some, makerspace proponents say hands-on work helps students hone their critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities, all while encouraging them to collaborate with peers. With those competencies in their toolkit, students can more easily navigate the STEM education network and, eventually, the workplace,” EdTech Magazine says.
Nor do the similarities end here. Like schools, library are also assuming a broader social mission
Stroll onto the Waukegan Public Library's airy main floor and you'll see gaggles of people entranced at banks of computers or getting counseled for the Affordable Care Act enrollment process. Kids are upstairs on overstuffed chairs looking through graphic novels or playing make-believe in the children's resource room. And homeless people are warming their bones on a day when the mercury might not get above 2 degrees.
The books are, effectively, beside the point at an institution where the mission isn't merely to promote literacy, but to improve lives. "Demographics are shifting, and the perception of the library is shifting — if we don't shift along with it, we're at risk of no longer being relevant," said Carmen Patlan, the Waukegan library's community engagement manager. "As books and readers go online, people wonder if libraries will still exist. What will they be for?  
For me, the library is a (mostly) quiet place to get work done during my daughter’s art classes. Those at nearby tables appear to be using the library in a similar way, or to read library books or to listen to library music CDs (with head phones). But is all that really “relevant”?

According to one news source:
Those who run, study and design libraries said the buildings have kept their relevance by being places for people to meet, take part in programs and learn how to use the electronic devices that access the Internet.

Maybe few of us read books these days, and even fewer of us get the books we read from libraries. But there are still some people out there who relish the relative quiet of libraries—or at least of those sections of libraries that haven’t yet succumbed to the 21t century.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Math problem of the week: 21st century geometry proofs

From Learn NC, which provides K-12 learning materials from the UNC School of Education:

Postulates and proofs: Let's take it to the courtroom!

In this unit, the process of solving proofs is practiced using the comparison and framework of a courtroom setting. Students will work in groups to solve a proof and then defend it in a class courtroom setting.

A lesson plan for grades 9–10 Mathematics

In this unit, the process of solving proofs is practiced using the comparison and framework of a courtroom setting. Students will work in groups to solve a proof and then defend it in “court.” This unit challenges and engages students, while building their confidence as they learn to support their arguments with sound, logical statements and reasons. Students will have both individual and group assessments during these lessons

Learning outcomes

Students will:
  • apply prior knowledge of the definitions, postulates, theorems, lines, angles, and triangles to solve proofs.
  • demonstrate the ability to create a sequential flow of reasoning by writing each logical step in a proof as a separate statement in the left column and writing its justification in the right hand reasoning column.
  • demonstrate a conceptual understanding of how to solve a two-column proof by searching for the answers to higher order thinking questions, revealing a more thorough understanding of the content.
  • be able to make a convincing presentation to a courtroom that a proof is correctly solved.
  • demonstrate proficiency of using inductive and deductive reasoning to solve proofs and problems.

Teacher planning

Time required

Seven to eight class periods (on a block schedule) or fourteen class periods (on a regular class schedule)

Materials needed

  • Geometry proofs — each group is assigned a different proof and each member of the group needs their own copy
  • Group folder documents:
    • Courtroom bellringer activity — one per student
    • Problem-solving circle role cards — one per group
    • Geometry vocabulary chart — one per student
    • Collaborative group work rubric — one per student
  • Trial Guide — one per student
  • “Let’s take it to the courtroom!” rubric set:
    • Teacher observation rubric — one per class
    • Proof rubric for judge — one per group
    • Trial rubric for jurors — one copy per juror for each trial
  • Proofs unit test — one per student
  • Pencils

Technology resources

  • Laptops for research and presentations
  • Presentation software or program (such as Prezi, SlideRocket, SMART Notebook, Word, PowerPoint)
  • Multimedia projector and computer
  • Interactive whiteboard
  • Courtroom 101 video (optional)
  • Teen court video (optional) Note: The video is a teen court case in Florida. The content surrounds a teen that made a bad choice, and it involves the topic of drugs. Please watch the video first to decide if it is appropriate for use in your class.

The Trial Guide continues for another 4 1/2 pages.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Other parents and other children, Part III: a mid-winter rant

Driving this philosophy a bunch of oppositions, some embedded within others.

First we have what’s good enough for my kid is good enough for your kid:

1. My kid loves science fair projects so yours should, too.

2. My kid had no trouble reading Beowulf in 7th grade, so your kid shouldn’t either.

3. My kid has no trouble working in groups/doing oral presentations/explaining his answer to math problems, so your kid shouldn’t either.

Underlying message 1: …unless there’s something wrong with your kid (too much screen time? lack of curiosity? cognitive impairments? social pathology?)

Underlying message 2: …unless there’s something so incredible about my kid that it’s impossible for me to imagine that other kids can’t do even 50% of what s/he can do.

Then there’s what’s good enough for your kid isn’t good enough for my kid. This group includes:

1. People who oppose school choice but have school choice themselves (i.e., the ability to pay for private school or move to a different district).

2. People who oppose selective charter schools, but send their kids to selective schools.

3. People who think publicly funded schools shouldn’t remove disruptive kids, but make sure their own kids’ classrooms are disruptor-free.

4. Parents who oppose tracking and ability-based grouping, but make sure their own kids attend high-level classes with high-level peers.

5. Parents who say charters and vouchers are destroying public education, but opt their own kids out of public education.

6. Parents who lament the college admissions rat race and say that SAT scores and what college you go to don't matter but, when the time comes, hire tutors and SAT coaches and stuff their kids’ schedules with after-school activities.

Particularly galling is the overlap between the two groups. On the one hand, what’s good enough for my kid is good enough for your kid; on the other hand, what’s good enough for your kid isn’t good enough for my kid.

Of course, this isn’t a contradiction: just a set-theoretic hierarchy.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Autistic readers and pre-modern literature: do they really "want abilities"?

In an earlier post, I discussed the challenges that autistic readers have dealing with non-literal language. The big problem, I noted, aren’t the many conventionalized examples of non-literal language—for example, “raining cats and dogs,” “can you pass the salt?” “I’m stuck”. These phrases are so commonly used non-literally that one can simply acquire and memorize their non-literal meanings in the same way one does with words that have more than one meaning.

Rather, what’s problematic are expressions whose intended meanings aren’t currently conventional: for example, less common, hackneyed ones like “your essay needs some sign posts” or “the cadenza was mischievous.” In the absence of common, conventional, non-literal meanings, the literal meanings of these expressions are the most salient. To override them as unlikely in context, the listener/reader must consider that context in full: the big picture; the larger discourse/text; what the speaker/writer is or isn’t plausibly trying to communicate. Does your English teacher really want you to attach actual sign posts to your essay? How likely is a cadenza to be literally mischievous, or for the music reviewer to think it is? What is the most likely alternative meaning? Perhaps some metaphorical extension of the literal one?

More recently, as I immerse myself for homeschooling purposes in the prose of Austen, Bronte, Hawthorne, and Bulfinch, I’m noticing another way in which the literal-minded autistic reader could be led astray. Hundred-plus-year-old texts house scores of obsolete idiomatic expressions and words whose meaning have drifted significantly since they were originally put to paper. Some of these I’ve been collecting in an earlier post. Consider "intercourse" for social interaction; "check" for limit; "suffer" for allow; "late" for recent; "discover" for reveal; “host” for army; “closet” for private room; "in a body" for as a group; "gay" for happy; “fix” for sabotage and “want” for need or lack. Consider how someone who can’t get beyond what today’s literal meaning of “fix” and “want” will misinterpret “Pelops bribed the charioteer to fix the chariot” or "Mr. Darcy can please as he chooses. He does not want abilities".

Of course, neurotypical readers, particularly those who don’t have much experience with older texts and semantic drift, may also struggle with these shifted meanings. Only the most discerning and semantically flexible young readers, I’m guessing, will deduce from context alone what it means for the bribed charioteer to “fix a chariot” or for Mr. Darcy to “not want abilities.” But, to the extent that neurotypical students are more sensitive to what’s plausible given the bigger picture, they are at least more likely than their autistic counterparts to dismiss the literal meaning, and thus--even if they don't come up with a meaningful alternative—not be led totally astray.

The best teachers, of course, will go over the obsolete and archaic meanings, sharpening everyone’s appreciation for older literature and, in the process--to use a still quite commonplace and conventionalized, even hackneyed metaphor--leveling the playing field for everyone.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

What makes for an autism-friendly college?

An autism-friendly college may not be the college with the “autism support program”; it’s the college in which autistic students are actually supported. An autism-friendly college is one that pays its note-takers rather than relying on volunteers, such that those deemed eligible for note-taking accommodations consistently receive them. An autism-friendly college is one in which those professors who require students to work in groups and participate in class discussions are willing to relax those requirements for those who have trouble cooperating with peers, trouble parsing and processing oral language, and trouble following group conversations.

Perhaps most importantly, an autism-friendly college is one that indicates which sections of particular courses are autism-friendly. In which sections can one avoid the group assignments and in-person interviews and field trips and personal reflections? In which sections can one avoid losing significant points for deficits in oral class participation or difficulty with reading-intensive multiple choice tests? In which sections is key information offered only orally? Which sections lack an online presence with straightforward steps for submitting assignments electronically and timely feedback on grades?

After all, even within the most autism-friendly of environments, it’s perhaps too much to expect everyone in power to have the empathy, Theory of Mind skills, and non-rigidity of thinking that it takes to appropriately accommodate the most vulnerable of their AS clients. The next best thing, then, is to give these clients a heads-up about who, specifically, to seek out, and who, specifically, to avoid.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Math problems of the week: 5th grade Common Core-inspired test question

A problem from a sample 5th grade PARCC test (a Common Core-inspired testing consortium that originally included 23 states, and as of June, 2015, consists of 7).

Extra Credit:

Common Core proponents claim the Common Core Standards don't dictate a particular curriculum. Relate this claim:

(a) to the above problem
(b) to the attrition of the PARCC consortium.

Enter your answers and explanations in the space provided.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Creative causality

In an essay in this past week’s New York Times Weekend Review, Adam Grant returns us to that persistent 21st Century question of whether creativity can be taught.

Grant begins by observing that “child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses who change the world,” noting that, among the finalists of “the most prestigious award for scientifically gifted high school students,” the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, “just 1 percent ended up making the National Academy of Sciences, and just eight have won Nobel Prizes.” This is not, apparently, because these child prodigies “lack the social and emotional skills to function in society”:

Less than a quarter of gifted children suffer from social and emotional problems. A vast majority are well adjusted — as winning at a cocktail party as in the spelling bee.
What holds them back is that they don’t learn to be original. They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers. But as they perform in Carnegie Hall and become chess champions, something unexpected happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.
The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies, but rarely compose their own original scores. They focus their energy on consuming existing scientific knowledge, not producing new insights. They conform to codified rules, rather than inventing their own. Research suggests that the most creative children are the least likely to become the teacher’s pet…
In adulthood, many prodigies become experts in their fields and leaders in their organizations. Yet “only a fraction of gifted children eventually become revolutionary adult creators,” laments the psychologist Ellen Winner…
Most prodigies never make that leap. They apply their extraordinary abilities by shining in their jobs without making waves. They become doctors who heal their patients without fighting to fix the broken medical system or lawyers who defend clients on unfair charges but do not try to transform the laws themselves.
Except for Grant’s assumption that magnificent performances don’t require creativity or that creativity entails political wave-making, so far, so good. I’ve met plenty of smart, straight-A, high-scoring students, and plenty of smart, successful, well-respected professionals, who aren’t even interesting to talk to, let alone being repositories of creative, original ideas.

But when Grant addresses how to actually raise a creative child, he quickly confuses correlation with causation:
So what does it take to raise a creative child? One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.
Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.
Even then, though, parents didn’t shove their values down their children’s throats. When psychologists compared America’s most creative architects with a group of highly skilled but unoriginal peers, there was something unique about the parents of the creative architects: “Emphasis was placed on the development of one’s own ethical code.”
Perhaps flexible thinkers beget flexible thinkers, but can we confidently credit nurture over nature—even when it comes to thwarting?

Then there’s the gradual unfolding of intrinsic motivation and passion:
Yes, parents encouraged their children to pursue excellence and success — but they also encouraged them to find “joy in work.” Their children had freedom to sort out their own values and discover their own interests. And that set them up to flourish as creative adults.
When the psychologist Benjamin Bloom led a study of the early roots of world-class musicians, artists, athletes and scientists, he learned that their parents didn’t dream of raising superstar kids. They weren’t drill sergeants or slave drivers. They responded to the intrinsic motivation of their children. When their children showed interest and enthusiasm in a skill, the parents supported them.
Top concert pianists didn’t have elite teachers from the time they could walk; their first lessons came from instructors who happened to live nearby and made learning fun. Mozart showed interest in music before taking lessons, not the other way around. Mary Lou Williams learned to play the piano on her own; Itzhak Perlman began teaching himself the violin after being rejected from music school.
Even the best athletes didn’t start out any better than their peers. When Dr. Bloom’s team interviewed tennis players who were ranked in the top 10 in the world, they were not, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, doing push-ups since they were a fetus. Few of them faced intense pressure to perfect the game as Andre Agassi did. A majority of the tennis stars remembered one thing about their first coaches: They made tennis enjoyable.
Does this mean that making things enjoyable—or encouraging children to find “joy in work”--will automatically generate the requisite passion? Or might passion itself make certain things enjoyable—as well as deterring parents from pushing too hard? As with flexibility, so, too, with passion: how can we confidently credit nurture over nature?
Introducing another correlation-causality confound, Grant cites experiential breadth:
Evidence shows that creative contributions depend on the breadth, not just depth, of our knowledge and experience. In fashion, the most original collections come from directors who spend the most time working abroad. In science, winning a Nobel Prize is less about being a single-minded genius and more about being interested in many things. Relative to typical scientists, Nobel Prize winners are 22 times more likely to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; 12 times more likely to write poetry, plays or novels; seven times more likely to dabble in arts and crafts; and twice as likely to play an instrument or compose music.
Do travel, broad interests, dancing, writing poetry make you creative in your field, or does creativity (and ambition) in your field simply correlate with broader creativity and ambition?

Meanwhile, Grant suggests, too much narrow practicing is counterproductive:
Can’t practice itself blind us to ways to improve our area of study? Research reveals that the more we practice, the more we become entrenched — trapped in familiar ways of thinking. Expert bridge players struggled more than novices to adapt when the rules were changed; expert accountants were worse than novices at applying a new tax law.
Right. And I’m guessing that it’s also true that if you reverse the notes on the piano, the most practiced pianists of the world will have a much harder adapting than the piano novice. In fact, as the most creative musical performers of the world readily show us (because, once again, contrary to what Grant suggests, there is plenty of creativity in musical performance) the blind, thoughtless automaticity that extensive practice leads to liberates our minds for higher-order thinking, including creativity. Or, to cite another creative individual:
Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.