Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Penmanship for in-class essays... and Common Core tests!

A colleague has just reminded me that there's still a purely practical reason for teaching students to write fast, legible cursive: in-class essay exams. Ironically (given the Common Core's de-emphasis on penmanship), handwritten exam questions aren't just a staple of many college courses, but also of Common Core-inspired testing--even in math tests. And, yes, as Anne Trubek points out, poor penmanship can negatively affect scores.

True, some students--and some entire classes--are allowed--or required--to word-process their essays instead of hand-writing them. But computers facilitate not just writing, but also cheating. And unless and until we find a way to ensure no computer based cheating (by, e.g., completely blocking Internet access at certain designated times and places), handwritten essay exams must remain an option, and penmanship instruction must stop disappearing.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Going on automatic: should word processing supplant penmanship?

In an article in last weekend’s Times, Anne Trubek, author of The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, argues that cursive is no longer pedagogically useful:

People talk about the decline of handwriting as if it’s proof of the decline of civilization. But if the goal of public education is to prepare students to become successful, employable adults, typing is inarguably more useful than handwriting.
Trubek concedes that "a 2012 study of 15 children found that forming letters by hand may facilitate learning to read.” But, she notes, "there seems to be no difference in benefits between printing and cursive." Her conclusion:
If printing letters remains a useful if rarely used skill, cursive has been superannuated. Its pragmatic purpose is simple expediency — without having to lift pen from paper, writers can make more words per minute.
And the expediency argument no longer holds water: now, with computers, typing is faster.

One of the most compelling cases for cursive over typing transcends expediency, and Trubek acknowledges it:
A 2014 study found that college students who took handwritten notes in lectures remembered the information better than those who typed notes.
But Trubek dismisses that study, saying that it
may indicate only that the slower speed of handwriting causes students to be more selective about what they write down.
And it’s here that Trubek’s case falls apart. For the idea that the slower speed of handwriting causes students to be more selective is hypothesized as the very essence of its advantage over typing in note-taking. As an earlier Times article on the 2014 study reports:
Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, have reported that in both laboratory settings and real-world classrooms, students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. Contrary to earlier studies attributing the difference to the distracting effects of computers, the new research suggests that writing by hand allows the student to process a lecture’s contents and reframe it — a process of reflection and manipulation that can lead to better understanding and memory encoding.
And as I noted in an earlier blog post:
For experienced keyboardists, typing is generally much faster than writing. Handwritten notes, then, require more triaging of content, and, therefore, more active attention to what's most important.
Trubek’s alternative?
Perhaps, instead of proving that handwriting is superior to typing, it proves we need better note-taking pedagogy.
Since it’s been at least half a century since we’ve had any note-taking pedagogy, one has to wonder whether Trubek has spent much time in any actual classrooms, or among any actual education policy makers.

One wonders this anew when she imagines how much better student’s writing skills must be today:
Many students now achieve typing automaticity — the ability to type without looking at the keys — at younger and younger ages, often by the fourth grade. This allows them to focus on higher-order concerns, such as rhetorical structure and word choice.
In fact, the changes imposed by the digital age may be good for writers and writing. Because they achieve automaticity quicker on the keyboard, today’s third graders may well become better writers as handwriting takes up less of their education.
Has Trubek looked at a student paper recently? Handwriting has been “taking up” much less education for a while now, and what I’m seeing doesn’t support her optimism.

Instead, I see downsides to keyboarded compositions that are similar to the downsides to keyboarded note taking. Just as the speed and automaticity in typing facilitates recording the teacher’s words without having to reflect on what’s key, it also facilitates writing down your thoughts as fast as they come—with little reason to formulate them first. Yes, there are still those who care enough about their writing to edit it before turning it in—and for these people, word processors are a wondrous boon. But the finished look of auto-corrected, auto-processed prose can make anything look “done,” and many students readily turn in what is often an unedited brain dump (sometimes warped by autocorrection howlers)—prose that is far worse, I’m guessing, than what they would have turned in had they had to write it out first in long hand.

Trubek rightly points out that:
Keyboards are a boon to students with fine motor learning disabilities, as well as students with poor handwriting, who are graded lower than those who write neatly, regardless of the content of their expressions. This is known as the “handwriting effect,” proved by Steve Graham at Arizona State, who found that “when teachers are asked to rate multiple versions of the same paper differing only in legibility, neatly written versions of the paper are assigned higher marks for overall quality of writing than are versions with poorer penmanship.” Typing levels the playing field.
But, apparently unaware that penmanship hasn’t been taught in a generation, she overlooks the possibility that much of today’s poor handwriting is as readily remediable as it is rampant.

Trusdek begins her book with a history of handwriting—which supposedly buttresses her claim that handwriting is history. As Jessica Kerwin Jenkins writes in this weekend's NY Times book review,
Perfecting penmanship became a Christian ideal in 19th-century ­America, one occasionally credited with disciplining the mind, initiating an era of ­pseudo-psychological graphology that lingers today. Handwriting’s sketchy scientific past makes good reading, but Trubek errs in underplaying the contemporary research that shows handwriting’s role in cognitive development. Studies show that a child drawing a letter freehand activates the neurological centers that reading and writing do in adults, while using a keyboard ­produces little effect. Children composing text by hand generate more words more quickly, and also express more ideas. Students who take class notes by hand better retain that information, and, fascinatingly, not only does the brain process capital letters and lowercase letters differently, but block printing, cursive and typing each elicit distinctive neurological patterns. It all seems more tantalizing and tangible than the “advantages ­unimaginable” Trubek believes the future holds. She calls the science behind the new studies “fuzzy” and judges their findings unconvincing. But while American public education has abandoned cursive, France surveyed the evidence and ­began teaching connected script even earlier, at age 6.
Though one technology often supplants another, that doesn’t necessitate concession. Considering its rich significance, instead of hustling handwriting off to the graveyard, perhaps what’s called for is resurrection.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Etc., etc., etc

So, in addition to the Prussian military and the factory training caricatures of schools, we have one more: the mindless robotic regurgitation model.

Of course, all three are related: desks in rows; authority in front; facts, facts, facts; filling in bubbles on multiple choice tests; the privileging of some answers and strategies over others; and the privileging of book-learning, and especially textbook-learning, over hands-on, group-centered discovering learning.

All this, supposedly, is totally anachronistic, not to mention dehumanizing, in the brave new 21st century. Nowadays, apparently, all jobs are collaborative, and all fact-learning and procedure-following, best outsourced to computers.

The most valid case to be made against desks in rows, authority in front, facts, facts, facts, etc., etc., etc., is that this isn't well suited to the youngest students--especially if we deprive them, as we currently do, of reasonable amounts of recess and running around, and (via homework) of free time outside of school.

So if Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek had qualified what they say in their new book as applying, specifically, to children younger than, say, 7, more of their points would be reasonable.

But there’s a rub. The problem with so much of today's popular education advice--and with popular advice in general--is that what's new isn't reasonable and what's reasonable isn't new. Or, rather, all that's new and (at least arguably) reasonable are the coinages—serving, though they do, mainly as branding mechanisms for book sales, TED talks, and the occasional MacArthur Genius award. These coinages, when they don't simply hijack old words for new buzz ("grit"; "growth mindset"), often spell cute acronyms (STEAM, RULER) or ring with alliteration, as with Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek's collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence.

Other branding mechanisms include complex but objective-looking metrics. What G & H-P offer is a 24-cell grid derived from these "6 c’s" and the four "Levels" that each one has. Using this, you can find out, for example, "who am I as a collaborator? Am I an on-my-own kind of girl [Level 1] or a side-by-side [Level 2]?" (Level 2, naturally, is higher than Level 1; Similarly, telling “a joint story” is better than “just reading the book and getting it over with.”).

Here are some additional insights from G & H-P:

G: We live in a crazy time, and parents are very worried about their children's futures. They're getting all kinds of messages about children having to score at the top level on some test. The irony is, kids could score at the top and still not succeed at finding great employment or becoming a great person.
When was the last time we didn’t live in a crazy time, didn’t worry about our children’s futures, and didn’t get messages about the importance of high test scores? When was the last time that top test scores did guarantee great employment and/or a great personality?
H-P: what [computers are] not going to be better at is being social, navigating relationships, being citizens in a community.
Is she suggesting that the devise on my lap isn’t sociable and civic-minded?
G: So, if you're going to have a kid who engages in critical thinking, you're not going to shut them down when they ask a question. You're not going to settle for "because." You're going to encourage them to ask more. And you want them to understand how other people think.
So when my child asks why the moon doesn't fall to earth, I shouldn't just say "because”?

Maybe some parents need to hear all this, but probably not the ones who are reading books like G & H-P’s ("Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children") or listening to interviews about this topic on NPR.

Here's another tidbit from the NPR interview:
Interviewer: Perspective-taking, which I think of as a component of empathy, you're saying is also foundational for critical thinking.
Hirsh-Pasek: Yes, theory of mind is important to be able to do critical thinking.
Yes, I’ve heard this one before, too. It’s one of the many ways in which neurotypicals underestimate the critical thinking skills of kids on the autism spectrum: all those kids who are stuck at Level 1 or Level 2 of  G & H-P’s first “c”.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Might sitting in rows and spitting out facts also be a prerequisite for learning?

In an earlier post, I talked about how certain "education reformists" malign traditional education as being

based on a 19th century Prussian model, or an early 20th century factory model, designed to foster obedience to political, military, or capitalist authority. 
These people, I  noted, are conflating political, military, and workplace authorities with educational authorities, and obedience to political, military, and workplace authorities with obedience to educational authorities.

There are some things, I noted, that contribute to this conflation:
all that lining up, all that waiting in silence, all that being yelled at for fidgeting during class or losing track of your belongings or daring to play tag or climb trees during recess. 
But other requirements--requirements like not disrupting the class, and attending to the educational authorities (competent teachers, decent textbooks)--I argue, are essential to learning.

Now a recent NPR segment on new book, "Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children," has reminded me of two things I left out--things that authors Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek join other would-be reformers in disparaging:

--sitting in rows

--spitting out facts

Here's Hirsh-Pasek:
If Rip Van Winkle came back, there's only one institution he would recognize: "Oh! That's a school. Kids are still sitting in rows, still listening to the font of wisdom at the front of the classroom."
We're training kids to do what computers do, which is spit back facts.  
How quickly people forget the virtues of row seating--even as they sit in rows in movie theaters or, say, during TED talks in which education gurus disparage row seating. Desks in rows is the only way to arrange a classroom so that a dozen plus kids can easily attend to the teacher, see what's being written on the blackboard, and take notes while using a hard surface (the surface of their desks) rather than their laps.

And how quickly people forget what it takes to learn things. "Spitting out" facts, while it should never be the be-all and end-all of education, is a key component of learning bodies of knowledge. The task of retrieving and articulating facts, when implemented well by competent teachers, is not a meaningless, rote repetition of disembodies chunks of information, but a way to strengthen long term memory of meaningful systems of integrated knowledge--knowledge that is crucial to personal success and societal progress.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek compares the challenge of raising children to climate change.
What we do with little kids today will matter in 20 years. If you don't get it right, you will have an unlivable environment. That's the crisis I see.
I agree.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Math problems of the week: more Common Core-inspired explained answers

From the 5th grade Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Grade 5 Scoring Guidelines:

Monday, August 15, 2016

Might obedience to authority be a prerequisite for learning?

When people carry on about how traditional education is based on a 19th century Prussian model, or an early 20th century factory model, designed to foster obedience to political, military, or capitalist authority, and then promote child-centered Constructivism as the alternative, might they be conflating a couple of concepts?

Besides political, military, and workplace authorities, there are also educational authorities: people (teachers, textbook authors) who are authorities because they know a lot--perhaps more than you do--on certain topics.

And besides obedience to political, military, and workplace commands, there's obedience in educational settings. Yes, a lot of the obedience solicited in schools (including in our most self-styled Constructivist schools) reeks of military-style obedience--all that lining up, all that waiting in silence, all that being yelled at for fidgeting during class or losing track of your belongings or daring to play tag or climb trees during recess.

But a certain type of obedience is crucial for learning. Classroom learning requires attending to the educational authorities (listening, reading) and not disrupting the class in ways that impair this.

It might be pretty to think otherwise, but in the absence of certain forms of (self-)discipline, and certain types of deference to certain types of authorities, it's pretty darn hard to learn much of anything, let alone develop one's own, personally-empowering educational, professional, and political authority.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The stereotype of rote learning in East-Asian classrooms, III

My most recent class contained a record number of non-native English speakers, most of them from mainland China. Initially, I had worried. Might these students flounder with the more technical, densely written articles? Or with the linguistic mechanics of writing clear responses to these articles in their weekly papers? But the Chinese nationals, in particular, soon proved to be producing the best papers in the class. Their English skills were excellent, and, invariably, they not only captured the key points in the readings, complete with specific examples, but also shared interesting, original reflections on these key points and details.

Papers by other students also contained reflections, but, particularly among the younger of the American-born, the thoughts were often free-floating; detached from the specific content of the articles; sometimes fatally skewed by imperfect understandings of what they had (or perhaps hadn't) read.

This weekly contrast--between papers that carefully digested the readings and grounded new ideas in specific details, and papers that contained fewer details and more free-floating ideas--made me think about something else I've often blogged about. That would be (starting here) the popular American stereotype of East Asian students: great at rote learning but deficient in open-ended thinking and creativity. And, as I read through these papers, I'd find myself picturing a proponent of this stereotype--quite popular among American educators--looking over my shoulder and seeing exactly what s/he wants to see. S/he would see the papers written by students with Chinese names that appeared to be mostly regurgitating the articles, in contrast to other papers that abstracted away from the details ("higher-level thinking") and reflected at length ("critically") on the bigger picture.

But what I saw was the difference between students who had really engaged with the reading and absorbed it well enough to really get the main points and carefully take them one or two steps further vs. students who hadn't processed the readings enough for their reflections to go much beyond what they could have come up with before they even did (or didn't do) the reading.

True higher-level thinking, after all, requires a strong foundation in the material you thinking about.

I thought most recently of my Chinese students when reading an article in last week's Times:

Chinese primary and secondary schools are often derided as grueling, test-driven institutions that churn out students who can recite basic facts but have little capacity for deep reasoning. 
A new study, though, suggests that China is producing students with some of the strongest critical thinking skills in the world. 
The unexpected finding could recast the debate over whether Chinese schools are doing a better job than American ones, complementing previous studies showing Chinese students outperforming their global peers in reading, math and science.
The study, to be published next year, found that Chinese freshmen in computer science and engineering programs began college with critical thinking skills about two to three years ahead of their peers in the United States and Russia. Those skills included the ability to identify assumptions, test hypotheses and draw relationships between variables.
The article goes on to discuss a leveling off of these skills once Chinese students attend Chinese colleges and universities. Possible culprits are the miring bureaucracy and lax academic standards at universities, the less energetic and demanding teaching, and/ or the decline in student motivation once the tremendous pressure of the university test, the gaokao, is over.

Unfortunately it is probably this leveling off of critical thinking skills that the proponents of East Asian stereotypes will remember, rather than the 2-3 year boost provided by those supposedly grueling, test-driven elementary and secondary schools.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Rigor versus Creativity: Are they mutually exclusive?

OILF is proud to publish this guest post by Maya Thiagarajan, a teacher at an international school in Singapore and the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom.

The Singapore local system prides itself for its "rigorous" program. And if you've ever looked at the exam papers for primary school kids on this island, you'll be amazed at the level of rigor. The word problems involve a tremendous amount of conceptual complexity, multiple steps, and hard calculations. The exams that these kids take are really hard.

Firstly, let's clarify what we mean by rigor. It's all the rage in education circles around the world, and the East certainly prides itself in the rigor that it offers kids. Rigor, I think, refers to three things:
• The level of challenge of the problems/tasks/assessments that kids are expected to do.
• The level of precision and quality expected of kids, especially when it comes to basic skills like mathematical problem solving, critical reading, and analytical writing.
• In order to ensure that kids can meet academic challenges and display strong academic skills, a rigorous education often requires teachers to explicitly teach concepts, assign homework, and provide detailed feedback. Rigor involves lots of practice with the goal of mastery. Rigorous education is often associated more with traditional exam-focused instruction than with constructivist project-based progressive education.
One look at Singapore's exam system for sixth graders is proof of its rigor.

But what about creativity? The major criticism leveled at the Singaporean exam system -- and perhaps any exam system -- is its lack of creativity. Exams are the antithesis of creativity because they require students to provide the answers that the examiner is looking for. There's no room for questioning or original thought or experimenting on an exam, not even on a well-designed exam.

What does a creative system look like: it's open-ended and exploratory. Kids ask questions of their own, they design and create, they work on collaborative group projects and presentations that involve multiple disciplines and a range of skills. In an English class, kids might write poems and act out a range of interpretations of a dramatic scene; in a Science class, they ask questions and design their own experiments; in a math class, they discuss various strategies with group members to solve a math problem. The US, known for constructivism and progressive education, embraces these kinds of creative projects.

And these projects are great -- they inspire kids, they get kids excited, they teach kids to work together and ask questions, they give kids the freedom to innovate or experiment...so what's the problem? The problem is that without a rigorous skill based education, these constructivist projects might end up being superficial and shallow. They focus more on giving a kid broad exposure and less on ensuring mastery.

If kids don't have strong skills and lots of rich content knowledge, they might end up just skimming the surface and not really learning anything deep. Without a rigorous skill-focused education, kids' reports and projects might involve sloppy writing and bad grammar; when they read, they might focus more on their feelings and less on actual literary analysis. Additionally, they will almost certainly have weak math foundations full of gaps; it's really hard to gain a strong math foundation without a systematic, sequential, and rigorous program. And as any student can tell you, group projects often mean that a few kids do all the work and learn a lot, while the other kids do very little and learn nothing. So yes, they offer creativity and inspiration, and kids certainly learn a lot from well-designed projects and explorations, but constructivism is not perfect either.

So, here's my question: why can't an education provide kids with both academic rigor and creative freedom? Why can't we teach basic skills and core content-- critical reading, analytical writing, mathematical problem solving, core science content -- in a rigorous, more traditional way, but ALSO give kids sufficient time and space to pursue projects, engage in open-ended discussions of literature, write their own poetry, and design their own experiments? Why can't we do both? Why do educators and education systems pit rigor and creativity against each other, instead of agreeing that both have value, and that in fact, they can complement each other?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Math problems of the week: Common Core-inspired explained answers

From the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Mathematics Item and Scoring Sampler for Grade 5:

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Bad vocabulary is contagious!

Here’s a local Philadelphia public radio reporter on Hillary Clinton’s then-pending acceptance speech: “It looks like she’ll be finessing her speech until the last minute.”

Finessing her speech?

The less we engage with rich, challenging prose, the more we lose not just our facility with complex sentences, but also our vocabulary skills. Bit by bit, generic words (“stuff,” “love,” “jerk”) displace more precise ones (“trappings,” “cherish,” “cynic”); ugly new usages or coinages (“solution,” “follow-on,” “impact,” “impactful”) displace perfectly good standbys (“strategy”; “follow-up”; “affect,” “effective”); and words with similar sounds and meanings (“ostensible” and “ostentatious”; “refine” and “finesse”) are increasingly conflated.

None of us are immune. Even those of us who continue to engage with vocabulary-rich written prose find ourselves, when it comes to real-life spoken language, in increasingly vocabulary impoverished environments. Language is contagious, and it’s only a matter of time before the last holdouts are impacted, no matter how much we try to finesse our speech.