Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Piecemeal "personalized" learning under the Panopticon

Yet another new trend in education that sounds great in theory but is problematic in practice is “Personalized learning.” In theory, everyone progresses through each subject at their exact level and learning pace. In practice, everyone sits at a computer screen and decides which questions to research and which “educational” games to play while their every key stroke feeds into an edutechnological Panopticon.

Here is one scenario, described by Rebecca Mead in her recent New Yorker article on the AltSchool system, a growing network of private schools linked by computers and charging around $30,000 a year.

Students at AltSchool are issued a tablet in pre-K and switch to a laptop in later years… When I visited a mixed classroom for second and third graders, most of the children were sunk into their laptops. All were engaged in bespoke activities that had been assigned to them through a “playlist”—software that displays a series of digital “cards” containing instructions for a task to be completed. Sometimes it was an online task. Two children were doing keyboarding drills on a typing Web site. Their results would be uploaded for a teacher’s assessment and added to the student’s online Learning Progression—software developed by AltSchool which captures, in minute detail, a student’s progress.  
The curriculum is roughly aligned with the Common Core… but AltSchool’s ethos …reflects a growing shift in emphasis among theorists toward “personalized learning.” This approach acknowledges and adapts to the differences among students: their abilities, their interests, their cultural backgrounds. 
A girl in the class was completing an offline task—reading a book about polar bears. A boy lay on his stomach on the carpeted floor, headphones on, using a Web site called BrainPOP to learn how to calculate the perimeters of basic shapes. “Two out of five!” he shouted at one point, as oblivious of those around him as a subway rider wearing earbuds and singing along to Drake.  
…Two girls sat together, laptops before them, using Google Images to scroll through pictures of seals for a social-studies assignment; occasionally, they paused to compare notes. Every so often, a student spoke with the teacher, a young woman in jeans and a loose top, her iPhone tucked under her thigh as she sat on the carpet. One girl had been using her laptop to research castles—an area of sustained interest. She and the teacher discussed princesses and castles, and whether they always went together. “That’s a good question,” the teacher said, and then asked, “Does America have princesses?”
A girl working nearby said, “Yes—my mom told me there was a princess and she died because of the paparazzi.” 
“My mom says that every castle has got a torture place,” the girl who was studying castles said.

“What is a castle?—that was your starting question today,” the teacher said. After the girl wrote a response, on paper, the teacher snapped a photograph of the page, in order to upload it to the girl’s playlist card 
She might also send it to a parent’s phone, using AltSchool Stream, an app that enables instant communication between home and school. Meanwhile, above the students’ heads, a network of white audio recorders hung from the ceiling, and fish-eye lenses were embedded in the walls. The goal of this surveillance system, AltVideo, is to capture every word, action, and interaction, for potential analysis.  
“Does every castle have torture?” the teacher said, her voice sounding sunny, if a bit distracted. “That’s a good starting question for tomorrow.”  
“Does America have princesses?” “Do castles have torture?” It’s one thing for children to work through a planned out curriculum at their own pace; quite another for them to work through the piecemeal content that arises from the piecemeal questions of kids too young to understand the big picture and the broader framework.

In the end, how many of these children will graduate knowing basic things like what the Holocaust is, where Iran is in relation to Russia, and what’s chemically interesting about water.

When everything depends on particular “starting questions,” “personal interests,” and “cultural backgrounds,” what ultimately results educationally is anyone’s guess—no matter how carefully we monitor the process.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Common Core Personality Standards?

Given current trends, it's hardly surprising that the newly passed Elementary and Secondary Education Act has broadened the definition of school success to include "non-academic" factors such as social-emotional learning and grit. Specifically, according to a recent article in Edweek, the ESEA

requires states to use at least one "indicator of school quality or student success" that "allows for meaningful differentiation in school performance" and "is valid, reliable, comparable, and statewide," alongside academic data in their accountability systems. Schools must also be able to disaggregate data related to that indicator to show how it affects students in different subpopulations: those from all racial and ethnic groups, students with disabilities, children from low-income families, and English-language learners.
Among the horrors this will unleash are:

-even more class time devoted to untested, time-wasting "social emotional learning" curricula
-calls for the edutechnological industrial complex to develop technology to teach socio-emotional skills via yet more screen time plus wearable devices that track emotional states
-a new round of high-stakes tests that will hold schools accountable for their students'  overall socio-emotional skills, joy levels, and grit rates

So it's nice to see one of grit's biggest promoters, psychologist Angela Duckworth, express some concerns about this last development in this past weekend's New York Times. What concerns Duckworth are:

-that we don't yet have reliable measures of grit
-that high-stakes grit testing might result in cheating.

One thing that doesn't concern Duckworth here is the prospect of holding schools accountable for something that we don't know how to teach. As Duckworth herself has stated (in her Ted Talk on grit):
Every day, parents and teachers ask me, "How do I build grit in kids? What do I do to teach kids a solid work ethic? How do I keep them motivated for the long run?" The honest answer is, I don't know. 
Surely, that should be one of the biggest concerns of all about any high-stakes testing of grit. There are plenty of factors key to college and career success for which we shouldn't hold schools accountable for just this reason: imagine if we did so with IQ scores, for example.

Tellingly, in this most recent piece, Duckworth sounds a tad less uncertain about the teachability of grit:
Does character matter, and can character be developed? Science and experience unequivocally say yes.
Stating that X and Y support A and B is a bit vague, of course--especially when you put things in passive voice ("be developed"). Character, of course, does develop over time, but science tells us that much of this is genetically based. Environmentally, the biggest influences on character appear to be something over which most schools have little control: specific peer environments and peer-on-peer influences, both inside and outside of school. Most schools can't control which students attend and who hangs out with whom.

The exception, of course, are schools with admissions standards. These schools can interview applicants and turn down those with certain personality traits. Which brings us to yet another way in which well-to-do parents who have real school choice (whether or not they support school choice in general) also have more control over their children's achievement that everyone else does.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Math problems of the week: reducing words without reducing math

I've often complained about the wordiness of Common Core-inspired math problems, and, in a recent post, I complained about the excess verbiage in this problem:

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: bacteria, a ladybug, a dog, Einstein, a giraffe, or a space shuttle?
[121 words]
Here's a rewrite of the same problem, shortened by about 50%:
Assume the Earth is a perfect sphere and imagine a rope running tightly around the equator. Suppose the rope is lengthened by 710 inches and made to float above the Earth at a uniform height all around. What is the largest thing that could fit underneath: a microbe, a bug, a dog, a person, a giraffe, or a space shuttle?
[60 words]
Some people point out that what looks like excess verbiage may serve a mathematical purpose: part of what's mathematically challenging about some problems is sorting out which part of the description is relevant to the solution. But that's different from plain old wordiness. When it comes to math problems that entail complicated scenarios or extensive directions, many words may indeed be necessary. But beyond a certain number, each new word strains working memory. The more words appear beyond what's mathematically necessary, the harder it is do the problem--for non-mathematical reasons. So, sure, include the distance that the cars have already traveled in a problem that where only their subsequent distance matters. But don't tell us what color the cars were, or assign colorful names to all the drivers.

Color raises another point. Some words are more distracting than others. Gratuitously unusual words or words that evoke specific, irrelevant images contribute additional distraction beyond the numerical word count. This is why I've replaced "Einstein" with "a person" and "a ladybug" with "a bug." (I replaced "bacteria" with "a microbe" for a different reason: "bacteria" is distracting because it raises questions about quantity.)

Minus the excess verbiage and non-mathematical distractions, some of today's word problems are perfectly fine. Revising them may take time, but much less time than they otherwise waste.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The imperiled pleasures of parsing Austen, III

In my post last week on Michael Godsey's article in the Atlantic ("The Value of Using Podcasts in Class"), I worried about whether audio narratives deprive students of the motivation to practice parsing hard sentences. With the intonation and pausing of a good audio rendition, much of the work of parsing a sentences is done for the listener. "Already," I lamented, "Fewer and fewer kids are reading works with sentences like these with the care they deserve, let alone doing the hard work of parsing them grammatically. If we increasingly rely on a cadre of good readers to do the parsing for us, are we failing to develop a skill we still care about?"

But I signed off before justifying my claim that fewer and fewer kids are reading syntactically complex sentences with the care they deserve. Here's why I think this:

1. Fewer works with syntactically complex sentences are being assigned: class textbooks have ever fewer subordinate clauses; class fiction is ever more "relevant" (i.e., modern and conversational). For the harder stuff, SparkNotes are a click away.

2. Kids, we know, are choosing to read less overall, and, I'm guessing, disproportionately less in the way of Austen, James, Shakespeare, and Chaucer.

3. Fewer foreign language classes require kids to engage with complex sentences in other languages:

First, there is less reading of challenging foreign language prose, especially with today's "world languages" curriculum that encourages kids to take beginner courses in several languages rather than reaching an advanced level in any. 

Second, there are fewer courses in languages (Latin, Greek, German, Russian) whose syntax differs in complex ways from English. The popular languages--Spanish and Chinese--are, syntactically speaking, relatively easy for native English speakers.

But perhaps, with the decline in the global use of German and Russian, the second death of the dead languages, and the rise of universal translation and audio recordings, parsing complex sentences is idle mental acrobatics--fun for some people, but pointless for most?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Barry Garelick's latest book is out!

You can buy it--and read some really wonderful endorsements--here!

Reform Math has found some proponents among actual mathematicians; but not, I'm guessing, among mathematicians whose children are being educated by Reform Math classrooms--assuming they've taken a look at what's coming home. As Barry writes in his book, “Hell hath no fury like a mathematician whose child has been scorned by an education system that refuses to know better.” Barry is one such parent--and his dismay at what he saw led to an exciting new career in both math education and writing about math (in the very best sense of "writing about math").

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The imperiled pleasures of parsing Austen, II

In a recent article in the Atlantic, Michael Godsey talks about how he has gotten his students interested in reading via podcasts with written transcripts. The combination of oral narration plus written transcription, he says, is particularly powerful in capturing the otherwise straying attention of his students.

I agree that there is something particularly engaging about transmitting linguistic messages simultaneously via both auditory and visual channels.

On the one hand, because it's less convenient to replay sound than to reread text, I find that I've (we've?) developed better attention-sustaining habits for oral/auditory messages. My mind wanders far less with books read out loud than with books on paper.

On the other hand, because audio can also be too quiet, rapid, mumbled, or confounded by background noise or unfamiliar dialects, I now routinely turn on the captions when watching movies. Wow--how much I was missing! The mind tends to fill in and sort out, often inaccurately, the gaps and garbles in what it takes in, and so you don't realize, until you turn on those captions, just how much would otherwise escape you. I've had similar revelations when taking libretto to operas and music scores to concerts.

But when it comes to works that were originally created to be read rather than listened to, my feelings are more ambivalent. For all that is gained with audio narrations, it strikes me that something is lost. As I wrote as a comment on Godsey's article:

One thing worth keeping in mind are the differing linguistic demands of reading a text that isn't read out loud vs. reading/listening to a text this is read out loud. In the latter case, much of the work of parsing a sentences is done for the listener--via intonation and pauses. Students therefore don't get practice performing the kind of linguistic analysis often required to make sense of complex sentences (sentences that are at least as complex as the one you're reading right now) that appear only in writing. Even if everything is ultimately available in an oral medium, I wonder if certain important analytical skills are being lost.
For example, consider how much easier it would be to parse the Jane Austen sentence I blogged about earlier if it were read out loud with appropriate pauses and intonation:
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.
Already, fewer and fewer kids are reading works with sentences like these with the care they deserve, let alone doing the hard work of parsing them grammatically. If we increasingly rely on a cadre of good readers to do the parsing for us, are we failing to develop a skill we still care about?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Math problem of the week: Common Core-inspired word problem

From New York State Testing Program, Common Core Sample Problems, Grade 8:

[90 words]

Suppose that the amount of water consumed by a football team on a given day is a linear function of temperature, and that in 90o weather 220 the team consumes gallons and that in 76o weather it consumes 178 gallons.
A. Express this relationship as a function.
B. State what the slope represents.
[51 words]

Here is the rationale for the original problem

Follow-up problem: Can the above rationale be satisfied with a problem that contains 40% less verbiage than the original?

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Engineering the writing requirement

On my previous post on obstacles in college faced by kids on the spectrum, gasstationwithoutpumps comments:

The mistake is in going to a school that lets English professors teach writing. Writing is a skill that has nothing to do with literary criticism, which is all most English professors are trained in.
True enough. Of course, most schools do let English professors teach writing. But, as I look around, I'm noticing that many schools also let professors in other departments teach courses that satisfy the writing requirement. Here's the description of one at Penn:
WRIT 038 301 Art of Engineering 
Fulfills the Writing Requirement 
While the study of engineering involves performing calculations and solving equations, what does the practice of engineering involve, and how has this changed over time? Guided by Eugene Ferguson’s Engineering and the Mind’s Eye, we will consider the concept of engineering knowledge and how it has been developed and disseminated through the centuries. From moving the Vatican Obelisk in the 16th century to launching satellites into orbit in the 21st century, visual and communication skills have been critical to the successful completion of engineering projects, even though they may be more arts than sciences. Taught by a licensed Professional Engineer, this seminar will lead students through an exploration of engineering as a multifaceted endeavor and it will encourage students to enrich their understanding of the breadth of skills that successful participation in the field encompasses.
Indeed, some schools (e.g., this one) allow every department to offer courses that satisfy the writing department. This makes eminent sense. All fields involve writing; there's no reason to think that English professors are any better at writing, or at teaching writing, than professors in other fields; and if college (as nearly everyone now claims it is) is all about preparing kids for the real world, why limit writing training to analyzing fiction?

But here's the problem. When you're dealing with autism, you're dealing with multiple constraints. In J's case, it was crucial to avoid schools that (1) had liberal arts distribution requirements; (2) were too far away for him to live at home and commute by public transportation; and (3) didn't offer majors in math or computer science. Plus, the school actually had to actually let him in. And, while J managed to get in to all nearby schools he applied to, considerations (1)-(3) narrowed down his options to exactly one school. Even if we had taken a close look at what third semester "Writing and Rhetoric" entailed before making that choice, none of the other choices would have looked any better.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Beyond the Tiger Mom

I've been meaning to write a post about very interesting and engaging book by Maya Thiagarajan that came out last month and that I had the pleasure of blurbing:

The daughter of a South Indian father and an American mother, and a resident, for different phases of her life, of the U.S., India, and Singapore, Ms. Thiagarajan is in a unique position to contrast Asian and American parenting styles. Readers of this blog might find particularly interesting what she has to say about why Asian kids are so good at math. Here is an excerpt:
Now, in the US, I had read over and over again about the importance of creating a print-and language-rich home for children, but here in Asia, I began to see but here in Asia, I began to see many mothers working hard to create a mathematically rich home for their children. Mothers like Priya talked to their kids about numbers, shapes, and patterns from the get-go. They played maths games when they were in the car or at the dinner table (guess the number, solve the mathematical riddle, add up the numbers on licence plates as quickly as possible, calculate distance travelled, etc.). They taught their kids chess. They spent money and time on Lego sets, building blocks, tangrams, jigsaw puzzles, and board games. When they took the kids to the grocery store, they talked maths: "If one apple costs 80¢, how much will six apples cost?" When they rode the elevator, they talked maths: "Look, we're riding up and down a number line. If we're on the fifth floor now, how many more floors till we get to the 11th floor?"
I asked Lara, a Singaporean chartered accountant with a maths-inclined son, how she had managed to raise a child who so clearly loved maths. "What really matters is that I get him to notice the maths that exists all around us," she replied. "When we go to the playground, for example, I ask him what he sees, and we talk about shapes and patterns. I'll point out an isosceles triangle to him, or we'll look at the shapes and patterns on the jungle gym..."
Besides deliberately building a math-rich home, most of the Asian mothers I know also set to work making sure that their kids learned maths early. Asian mothers – both south Asian and east Asian – love maths workbooks. Unlike many Westerners who shun workbooks, claiming that too many drills will kill a child's love of learning, Asian mothers, in my experience, adore them. They gain great satisfaction from watching their young children complete good old-fashioned drills. Looking at a sheet full of correctly solved math problems is tangible proof of learning that makes mothers feel reassured and happy. In addition to workbooks, many Asian mothers encourage their kids to do online math games and math drills.
There's a lot more. For anyone interested in a bigger picture of what goes into academic success, and what often goes against the grain of American edu-parenting trends, I highly recommend Thiagarajan's book.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Not the Apple of my iPad--or so I wish

The GrammarTrainer project has faced its share of obstacles. There have been coding challenges, challenges finding beta-testers, challenges dealing with school bureaucracies, and challenges finding collaborators and competent coders. We’ve lost time to incompetent coders, we've lost efficacy data to unsupervised graduate students, and we’ve lost collaborators to unfavorable tenure decisions and, tragically, fatal heart conditions. But only a few times has progress has ground to an actual halt, and each time it’s all been all thanks to Apple.

Apple has recently portrayed itself as taking the high road in refusing to write code to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernadino shooter. Apple is “a staunch advocate for our customers’ privacy and personal safety,” CEO Timothy Cook has said. “We do these things because they are the right things to do. Being hard doesn’t scare us.”

I’m not sure what to make of the San Bernadino iPhone controversy, but I’m pretty sure of a few things. Apple’s stance isn’t about what’s right; it’s about what’s profitable. Apple isn’t just “hard” on the FBI; it’s also hard on its users. And Apple’s basis for not being “scared of being hard” isn’t bravery, but near-monopolistic power.

A few years ago, we decided it would be a good idea to create a app version of the GrammarTrainer. Our rationale was that, thanks to Apple’s increasing dominance in the American Edutechnological Industrial Complex, more and more classrooms had iPads; more iPads than any other sort of computational device. But we didn’t realize the obstacles that lay ahead.

The first one was immediate: downloading software onto an iPad is a lot more complicated than downloading software onto a computer. You can’t just go download random stuff off the web. Instead, you need to install special software. Back then, there was an independent testing platform called Testflight that would do the job. All we had to do was install Testflight on all of our devices and then give the developer all of our iPad ID numbers and user names so she could “invite” us to download the program. Every few months, the latest software “build” would expire, and then we had to download a new build.

Just as we were getting used to this, Testflight was purchased by none other than Apple, and Apple, with a few weeks’ warning, proceeded to expire the version of Testflight that all of us had installed on our iPads. Getting the new Testflight installed involved a more complex “invitation” process in which all of us testers had to create iTunes accounts. But the worst part was that the software, which now had to be uploaded to iTunes, was required, even though it was only in testing mode, to go through iTunes’s opaque “approval” process. This took several weeks longer than it had to because of the lack of feedback in the iTunes error messages (error messages that lack feedback are things that coders loathe but can avoid when they’re in control of the coding). As for human feedback—forget it. With a great deal of effort you can eventually figure out a way to make an appointment for telephone support, assuming you’re willing to wait for several days for an appointment time. But (at least in my experience) the human helper doesn’t end up having anything helpful to say.

Finally our app developer figured out the necessary technical modifications to make the program acceptable to iTunes. But as soon as we had modifications to make, new problems arose. The first time our developer tried to upload new videos, the program would no longer load unto our iPads. There was no help to be found anywhere on the iTunes website; only scores of negative reviews for iTunes support. It wasn’t until we reached out in all human directions and eventually found an iTunes savvy friend of a high school friend of my husband’s that we got the necessary help. (Some developers are true angels, more interested in helping than in profit seeking). Now, it seemed, we knew how to upload new builds—something that, with the original Testflight, was trivially easy.

But soon we realized that, whether or not we actually had new builds, our project faced another new obstacle—a recurring one. Unlike the old Testflight, the Apple Testflight would expire our builds every 30 days. Frequently, in the course of those 30 days, Apple would make various “upgrades” to the developer platform and the updating process, such that our developer frequently had to learn new procedures and sometimes had to renew her Apple developer "license" and/or upgrade (or “upgrade”) her entire operating system. The problem was particularly acute if anyone on our team neglected to upload the latest build until after one of the unrelenting expiration dates had passed. Eventually Apple Testflight deigned to double the expiration period to 60 days. But meanwhile it has complicated matters so much that, for reasons that are even more boring to explain than the rest of this is (they relate to the fact that only certain individuals at the school district’s downtown office can receive the emails from iTunes that contain the download link) the classrooms we’re partnering with can no longer get the software onto their iPads.

A near-monopoly on classroom computing; a near-monopoly on testing platforms; a program for autistic kids brought to a standstill. Somehow that sounds like the unintended consequences of profit-seeking rather than of taking the high ground and not being scared of “being hard” on the FBI.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The double whammy: group work in English class

As GoogleMaster pointed out on my previous post:

To advance as a software engineer, it's not enough to be a great coder. You have to be able to communicate with people who speak business language, both receiving and transmitting. On the other hand, if J just wants to code, there are probably positions for that, as long as he's okay not advancing up the career path.
That makes sense, and luckily there are indeed still positions in which coders work mostly on their own rather than in groups. Since J has no aspirations other living independently and having a nice stash of ceiling fans, non-advancement up the career path is fine with him. In this, I'm guessing that he's not alone.

But, interestingly, J has already had to work in groups in his computer science classes. And, knock on wood, that seems to be going OK. Hopefully his group mates see him as an asset; he is, after all, quite good at coding. Plus, he is quite capable of communicating about programming tasks.

But group work in English class is different. Here he cannot possibly be seen as an asset; only as a liability. So his group mates excluded him and did not respond to his email messages--and, adding injury to insult, his teacher blamed him for not managing to cooperate with his group and gave him a really low grade.

In other words, for the autistic child, group work in computer science classes and group work in English classes are completely different ballgames.

They're also completely different ballgames for everyone. While group work on computer science projects in computer science class may reflect an actual reality outside the classroom, as GoogleMaster suggests it does, group work in English class on writing assignments does not reflect an actual reality outside the classroom. Writers do not write in groups. We may collaborate and each write sections of a paper or chapters of a book, but we do not write together. We may ask our collaborators or other peers to review and edit our work, but we handpick people we trust, not just random people who happen to be around. And most of our actual writing we do independently.

Not only does group work in English class not reflect a reality outside the classroom; neither is it an efficient way to improve your writing. The way to improve your writing is to do your own writing and get expert feedback; group writing projects are conducive to neither.

Group work in English class, in other words, is not only autism unfriendly, but gratuitously so. And any school that purports to be autism friendly needs to provide better options--for everyone.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Bad for America; good(ish) for the globe: the far-reaching consequences of universal translation

A recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal argues that within 10 years it will no longer be necessary to learn foreign languages. Instead, smartphones will immediately translate into your own language whatever the person talking to you is saying. A small earpiece will whisper into your ear, in perfect idiomatic English (or whatever you select as your first language), in a voice and tone that matches that of your interlocutor, and with only a split-second delay, exactly what she is saying. Parallel technology at the her end will do the same for her. Thus, any two speakers from any of the world’s spoken languages (signed languages are trickier) will be able (sooner for the more commonly spoken languages; later for the less common) to engage in barrier-free conversations that don’t require anyone to know anything beyond his/her native language.

If this actually happens, there’s certainly much to be gained. A number of languages around the world are waning—both in numbers of native speakers and in how well those native speakers maintain their proficiency--largely because policy makers, parents, and/or students themselves think students should focus on English, Chinese, and other more “useful” languages. Such trends can now reverse course. After all, if all languages are immediately, seamlessly translatable, all languages are equally useful. Also saved, besides endangered languages, are instructional hours: all that time learning English or Chinese that can now (or so one hopes) be spent on other academic subjects—including the finer points of expressing oneself in one’s native language, and (until we have apps for these as well) understanding older, more complex written forms of one’s native language. Finally, eradicating linguistic barriers means drastically reducing cultural barriers— potentially drastically improving cross-cultural relations.

But there are also some interesting downsides--for example the much-discussed cognitive benefits of multi-lingualism. Such benefits may motivate some people—particularly the linguistically minded—to continue learning other languages. But the diminished motivation at both policy and personal levels, drastically reducing multi-lingualism worldwide, may also drastically reduce the emergent global intelligence of the human race.

Then there are the specific losers. Right now, native speakers of the “useful” languages—of which English is currently foremost—have an enormous academic and economic advantage over non-native speakers. I’ve often wondered, for example here, just how much of America’s continued preeminence in the world—given how crummy our schools are and how poorly they prepare students for non-menial jobs—is a function of its linguistic advantage. Think of all the college graduates who break into the workforce by teaching ESL—whether here in this country to recent immigrants, or abroad in East Asia, Eastern Europe, or Africa. Think of all the highly-industrious immigrants who still choose America—even as other countries become more inviting—because the language they learned in school was English (rather than German or Swedish or Swahili). Think of all the hours that Americans don’t need to devote to teaching and learning basic English that other countries do have to spend. Think of all the international students who will no longer need to pass the TOEFL in order to compete against native-born Americans for spots in American universities—their universal translators now enabling them to understand American lectures and participate in American seminars. And think of what will happen to all the jobs for which native English speakers have had a special advantage--once the playing field levels out to the native speakers of all languages around the globe.

So much the better for the world in general; so much the worst for Americans—until, that is, we finally get out educational act together.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Math problems of the week: German vs. American math goals

From a University of Wuerzburg page on Mathematics teaching in Germany:

2.2 Goals of mathematics teaching

Syllabi point out leading ideas and goals for mathematics teaching concerning:
  • mathematics as a theory and as a tool for solving problems in natural and social sciences, including modelling;
  • experiences with fundamental ideas in mathematics like the idea of generalization, the need for proving, structural aspects, algorithms, the idea of infinity, and deterministic versus stochastic thinking;
  • methods of getting insight like inductive and deductive reasoning, methods for proving, axiomatics, formalization, generalization/specification, heuristic work; 
  • variation of argumentation levels and representation levels in all fields and aspects of mathematics teaching; and
  • historical aspects of mathematics.

From The U.S. Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice:

CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP1 Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.

CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP2 Reason abstractly and quantitatively.

CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP3 Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP4 Model with mathematics.

CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP5 Use appropriate tools strategically.

CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP6 Attend to precision.

CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP7 Look for and make use of structure.

CCSS.MATH.PRACTICE.MP8 Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Autism in America: gratuitous barriers to productive employment, Part II

I ended my previous post the following cliffhanger: 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.

Let’s now descend that cliff down to the English requirements for a computer science major at one such school. To a prospective student and his parent, checking out his program of study ahead of time to make sure it’s feasible, these requirements don’t look too bad. Three courses in Composition and Rhetoric: how bad can this be? While you can’t forget how poorly your child did on the Critical Reading section of the SATs, you remember how his Writing score was much closer to average. So Composition and Rhetoric will be challenging, but surely not prohibitive. Surely the courses will focus on writing rather than reading, and what reading there is will come from books on composition and rhetoric rather than the literary fiction that your child (along with many of his autistic peers) can’t make head or tail of. Right?


But you and your child don’t find this out until the courses get under way. First semester is, in fact, OK. As you’d hoped, the main reading assignments come from a composition book, and the only autism-unfriendly challenges are that students submit journals and conduct in-person interviews. Sure, it would be nice if your child’s mechanical writing skills actually showed improvement as a result of this class, but, what did you expect, really? What’s important is that your child passed the class with a not-too-terrible grade, and now he has one down, only two more to go.

With additional accommodations in place that you wished you’d known about earlier but hope now will make things easier (specifically a transcript of all your child’s classes), you fully expect that the second round of Writing and Rhetoric will go at least as well as the first. But then it becomes clear that this particular class features social challenges that your child last had to deal with in middle school. Just as in certain middle school English classes, a big part of the grade, it turns out, is going to be based on “peer review”—reviewing his classmates’ work—and working in a group on a group project—both inside and outside of class. Indeed, the transcripts of the class turn out to be quite short because most of the class time involves students working in groups. And it quickly becomes clear that your child’s group mates are leaving him out because they’d rather not deal with him, and that his instructor is penalizing him for not succeeding in working with them. This class, in other words, is turning out not only to be autism-unfriendly, but diagnostic for autism: where moderately autistic means a non-passing grade. You encourage him to drop the class and seek out alternatives.

Specifically, you encourage him to email all the professors who are teaching the final round of Composition and Rhetoric to find out which ones are autism friendly. And what you find out is that all the final-round courses involve literature, whether short stories (e.g., Barn Burning and A Perfect Day for Banana Fish); poetry (e.g., Wordsworth); or plays. Included among the plays are Shakespeare’s Tempest, the relationship-intensive How I Learned to Drive, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, the film version of which has figured in a famous autism study underscoring how autistic viewers focus on all the wrong details. There’s no way in hell your child is going to pass Composition and Rhetoric III—even if he has a more sympathetic professor, even if he avoids those sections that require peer-review, group work, and multi-media adaptations of literature, and even if every relevant and available accommodation is enacted in a timely fashion and without any glitches.

Then you check out the entire English department listings, hoping to find something your son can request as a substitute course—expository writing? technical writing?—and discover nothing else but literature courses. However tight the job market continues to be for English PhDs, and however poor the expository writing skills or more and more college freshmen are proving to be, apparently no one is asking anyone to offer courses in the mechanics of expository writing.

Meanwhile, you face the very real possibility that your high functioning son may end up dropping out of a college that was initially quite enthusiastic about admitting him.

And you wonder to what extent the poor lifetime prognosis of kids like him is a function of autism itself vs. a byproduct of America’s special variety of neurotypical rigidity.