Saturday, June 29, 2013

Happy Anniversary to me.

I'll be damned. I've been doing this for just over five years.

"Hello, World," indeed.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Innovative to the Point of Stupid.

Not completely obvious, though.
Innovation is a good thing. It is a constant desire for improvement and change, but it must be tempered with reality. You cannot change for change's sake and you absolutely cannot change if the end result is worse than the current practice.

This would seem obvious.

The problem is that too many people who should know better but are pressured by time and publishing deadlines, fall into the trap and wind up looking stupid. Case in point is this bit (via Red Lines and Highlights) from Lisa Nielson, who calls herself the Innovative Educator, about Teaching Writing:

The unspoken truth about teaching writing in schools is that few people doing so are published writers themselves.
And, we just jumped the shark.

I have said many times that I feel teachers should know what they are teaching, should major in their subject and should be years ahead of their students. I have not said, however, that being a practicing mathematician is essential to being a math teacher, or that only research physicists should be teaching physics.

You need to know your craft, but the craft in question is Teaching.

In fact, most professionals are the last people you want teaching in high school. Sure, Kurt Vonnegut and others have made great college professors, and there are a few who can publish and teach at the same time, but insisting that ALL high school English teachers be published writers is "Perfect getting in the way of Good Enough."

What we need are teachers. Good ones.

What's worse, the message that students get is that in school they don't focus on writing for real. Let's be honest, how often do you read a book in the real world and think, "Oh! I want to write a book report!" How often do we take two texts to analyze and write a paper that we hand into someone. How often do we research something, then write up a research paper for no one?

How often indeed? Well, in order to write that blog post, the innovative educator researched several texts (i.e., read a couple articles), incorporated some other knowledge and put together a short essay. In order to write this, I did as well. I handed it in ... or rather "published it."

It's not a book report - that would be a critical review, and if I look at, I can see thousands of them. Sure, the ones you do in fifth grade are horrible, but that's not the fault of the format. It's because you're dealing with fifth graders and a book they hated.

Professionals in other fields are not professionals in this one; it takes a lot more than skill in a related field to be a teacher.
Why aren't schools helping students write for real? Why aren't those who teach writing, publishing their work and helping their students to write for real audiences?
They are, but The Innovative Educator can't see beyond her smartphone.

"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." Education moves pretty fast, too, Ferris. It would be good if everyone paid attention to it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

School is still a valuable word, at least for Marketers.

I know that schools and teachers have been taking a bit of a bashing at the moment but I also think that, deep down, the people of this nation still fundamentally trust teachers and schools.

It's a small thing, but look at how this ad over the years plays to that, evoking "School Model" as if it were the epitome of rock-solid, good old American values:

2002 2003 2006
2007 2009 2009

Some "haters" are probably saying that this is hardly evidence ... I disagree. Marketers tend to take the tack that works. For this to still be used shows that they are making money off it. It came to my local mall this morning, and yes, I know that it's kind of a scam because they're trying to upsell you on the Teacher's version for $199 and the other model for $299.

But why do people respond to it?

"School Model."

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Nice to have money to spend.

A teacher in a neighboring district tells of a contracted consultant. She will come in 16 days, spend a time watching each math teacher, then will return on later days to tell them how to teach. The teachers who are being taught to teach will be given "release time" to meet with the consultant, meaning their classes will have a substitute.
This is not where the teacher needs help
and standing there with her is counter-productive.
You could hire her for 30 days for the salary that teacher's getting.

Why? Because they didn't meet their AYP quota ...not enough students were "proficient".

Which sounds like a system in need of some help until you realize what's going on. Over the five states that are part of this consortium, only 33% of the high school students are proficient. I find it hard to believe that all of those teachers across New England are all crappy teachers. Only 33% of 11th grade students, year after year, are able to reach proficiency while the same students as 8th graders ... somehow 75% or more scored proficient.

Did they suddenly get stupid? Maybe ... but doubtful that this would be a region-wide trend. Are the teachers lousy at this school or that one? Again, it's a region-wide trend. Also, the same students are doing much better on the reading and grammar tests.

If I gave a test that, year after year, only 30% could pass, what would your response be?

Could it be that the math tests are testing material the kids haven't taken yet? Welcome to the Common Core. Welcome to Pearson.

Get ready to fight for your public school, since the unspoken goal of all this testing is to find an excuse to shut down public schools and allow all that public money to shore up for-profit charters and to go to the very greedy pockets of the education industry's dank side: consultants.

And that consultant I told you about at the beginning? She's getting nearly $20,000.00 to come in 16 days and to tell experienced faculty how to teach.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The problem with boys in school is harder to fix than identify.

Joanne Jacobs has this article on boys' behavior and learning:
Many teachers and school administrators think “boys are too fidgety, too hyperactive, too disruptive, derailing the educational process for everyone while sabotaging their own intellectual development,” Lahey writes.

"Peek into most American classrooms and you will see desks in rows, teachers pleading with students to stay in their seats and refrain from talking to their neighbors. Marks for good behavior are rewarded to the students who are proficient at sitting still for long periods of time. Many boys do not have this skill."
Actually, if you peek into most American K-8 classrooms, what you'll see is a woman ... in our district the female to male ratio for teachers is about 8:1, nearly 15:1 if you include administration, paras and staff. That is skewed by the middle school which happens to be close to 50:50. In the high school, female:male ratio in my building is closer to 6:5. The district-wide faculty assembly at the beginning of the year is when you'll see this most clearly. The room is filled with women, most of whom are identical in their approach.

For another example, try Image Googling "Teacher". What do you get? Lots of elementary schoolteachers - all women. The only men are shown doing more complicated work - probably high school.

Is this a problem? I think so.

If all you ever get is variations on that teacher above, that really sucks. You need some variety, liberal and conservative, old and young, smart and meh, etc. You need someone who will talk you out of the corner and a teacher who will let you keep your own counsel.

I am not in this picture.
I was on a different part of the battlefield.
We all take different approaches to discipline, teaching, classroom bearing. I'm ex-military, 6'2", and I do medieval martial arts and historical arts and sciences for fun, but I'll bring cryptic crosswords and UVM math problems to do at night in the pavilion. I can play nearly every sport we offer at school and have coached many of them. I am dramatically different from many other teachers, male and female, but there are plenty like me ... again, both male and female.

This variety is good. Kids need to see that everything isn't sweetness and light, sit quietly and don't talk. Sometimes, they need some honest truth.
  • I don't give points for good behavior, participation, or having a pencil. 
  • I don't give a rat's behind about the notebook. 
  • I HATE collaborative grades and won't ever, ever, never, absolutely won't drop your grade because your "team member" didn't do his part.
  • You must know fractions. The calculator is for work you can't do with a pencil in 60 seconds or less. I don't care. Now is a great time to learn.
  • It's 70% tests and quizzes in a pseudo-SBG setup and 30% homework - but I don't grade homework, just count if attempted. For calculus and pre-calc, the ratio skews toward 90:10.
  • Challenge me and I'll prove my point or I'll accept that you've proven yours.
  • I don't give permission to go to the bathroom. You're 16/17 years old; take the pass and go quietly. One at a time. (Even if you're just getting out of your seat for a walk - that's going to be more of a problem for you than me when the test comes along.)

Sound like anyone you've had as a teacher? Certainly not for all of your teachers.

Some students can't stand how I run things - that's okay, I won't take it personally. Many more switch to my classes if they can, so I'm not in any danger for my job! The point is that it takes both kinds of teacher to adequately do this K-12 education thing and I'm not sure that my type exists in many elementary and middle schools.

Friday, June 21, 2013

AP courses are no big deal.

Jay Matthews on AP courses:
Most of the available data shows that high school students who do well in AP courses and tests do better in college than students who do not take AP.

Of course, you moron. AP students are, by definition, better students. What did you expect that research to show?

I think AP is a plus. Many high school students have told me their AP and IB courses made it easier for them to handle college academic demands. They have persuaded me that the AP approach to teaching and learning — smaller classes meeting more frequently with better-trained instructors — is better than what most colleges give their freshmen. But perhaps I am biased.
Jay is biased but that's not why he's wrong in this article. His basic premise is that AP courses are better than college freshman courses of the same name. He trots out a UNC freshman who feels that the AP History course had much more rigor than the freshman introductory course, and honestly seems disappointed that colleges are backing off their acceptance of the AP for credit.

Here's the deal.

Those AP courses enroll the best students in the school so they can be more rigorous than a general college course would be. College profs aren't stupid - they know their classes aren't filled with AP students. They know that they have to keep as many kids as possible in school or funding dries up and student evaluations get nasty.

Even though AP is better than the introductory courses, it can't hold a candle to the REAL courses.

Take my students, for example. They took AP Calculus and did well, worked hard, understood ... but every student in the room had a different plan, a different major lined up. Some wanted to do Marine Biology but they weren't totally sure, others engineering, one math, one history, one film, one psychology and some other BS degrees.

I couldn't incorporate the business examples the one kid needed, the physics that the other needed or the computer programming the others needed. My calculus, of necessity, had to be fairly general. I couldn't teach Calc121 for mechanical engineers because they weren't that specialized yet and because there was an incredible range of interest and course preparation in the room.

There were things missing, examples that I couldn't use because the physics was beyond them or because the economics was beyond me.

Far better for these kids to take the specialized calculus through their new department and get an easy A. Then they can excel by discussing the finer points with the professor, working beyond the class, and learning to work with calculus in a fluent and beautiful way.  this builds the network, allows them to succeed in college and get on the right track through a very big transition in their lives.

The history major who took AP Calc because he could, and who didn't really need it for his major, should absolutely get credit for the AP course.

Somewhat necessary.
The math major for whom the rest of his career will depend on a solid calculus foundation, should not. The engineering, or economics, or physics majors should not. No matter how good a job I do, there will always be a ton of stuff missing, stuff that a calculus for physics majors class will incorporate seamlessly.

What could possibly be missing from my spectacular class? Well, for one thing, computer solution techniques. Did I do the same amount of work using MatLab as the CALC121 class did? No, because it isn't allowed on the AP exam, wasn't included in the syllabus and was not demanded in the audit. Should those kids get credit for a course that doesn't really resemble the college course at all?

The takeaway: If you NEED a course for your major, AP courses should not count. A good foundation is too important.

100% proficiency in everything is a pipe-dream.

Joanne Jacobs links to the question:
Do all students need to be equally good in all subjects? Standards for aircraft differ based on what a plane is going to do. Why not for students? Proficiency might be enough in math for a student heading into the arts. It would surely be too low for one aspiring to an engineering career.
When every Eduwonk, Administrator and Reformer is equally good at Calculus, Physics, Shakespeare, writing, Biology, History, Art, Music ... then we can expect that every student will be proficient across the board.

I'm not saying we shouldn't teach them everything, but we can't expect total proficiency.

Relevance and Student Engagement

I hate discussions of relevance in math class. "When will I use this?" is not a question that should take precedence over building a mathematical foundation. Students cannot learn foundational material by getting hit with RealLife™™ questions ... at least not until the later stages of the unit or section.
Follow the center of gravity.

Students who are taught in an appropriately scaffolded fashion will understand better, retain material understanding longer, and apply the material more intelligently in non-standard situations. They will see the action, realize the math behind it, and "use this in RealLife™" in ways that neither you nor they can possibly predict right now.

Throwing them immediately into the deep end, however, by giving them the incredibly messy RealLife™ questions with all of the ramifications and qualifications, coupled with seven different solution methods, actually blocks acquisition and development. The Gateway Arch is not a parabola but saying that in the quadratics chapter won't help the students.

The takeaway: Make the numbers fit the first few times. Your R²-value should be 1 until the kids get the hang of things. Your numbers should work out evenly for a while. Give them the messy stuff after they've mastered the simple.

It's not that simple.

That's why math books tend to look simplistic and abstract, why they have false-seeming questions ... they know that the kids can't handle the complex stuff yet. Word problems are deliberately simplistic - to make them realistic would lead only to needless frustration. That's why the students don't see five years down the road, why they can't see the long-term implications and utility of what they are seeing right now ... because they're still learning to drive this car and haven't gotten the basics of its operation down yet. Watch a young driver and think about that teenager learning algebra: they are overly focused on the minutiae of the work and not yet ready to drive fast and react to changing road conditions. If there's another teenager in the car, they'll get themselves killed ... that's why learners permit and first-year drivers are so restricted.

FalseRealLife is even worse. If you attempt to overlay a fourth-order function on a photograph of a cloud formation or a transcendental function on ivy-covered bushes, you destroy, in the minds of every student in the room, the utility and purpose of  a regression -- there is no possible natural reason for that edge of that cloud to have any relationship with a fourth-order function or for the series of leaves to follow that curve. If you attempt to overlay a parabolic function on a Norman Window (semicircle on rectangle), you demonstrate the uselessness of mathematics by being somehow unable to come up with an example of data that is appropriately modeled by the regression you chose.

The takeaway: If you want students to see the utility of math, you have to use math in a useful way, using actual numbers and actual results. Bringing in your extensive knowledge of physics and other sciences here is worth the time.

For this reason, I include Bad Numbers in the FalseRealLife™ category as well. When "Johnny" winds up to be 71 meters tall, you have done yourself and your students a true disservice. This gem from a worksheet encapsulates this perfectly: "Math Problem 16. My sister greedily lapped up 483 liters of maggot juice from a saucer. I slurped up 5 times as much creamy maggot juice as she. How much delightfully delicious maggot juice did we drink altogether?" Besides the stupid attempt to engage the boys with "gross" humor, we have to ask ourselves how we expect the students to ever get a handle on the metric system or their own sense of "reasonableness" if we give them problems with numbers like this.

The takeaway: If you want students to relate, it has to be relateable, it has to be understandable, and it has to be real.

When it's clearly not a fourth-order and you try
to put a quartic on it, what message are you sending?
That your math is bullshit.

But, then there's FantasyLife which uses crazy situations and wildly weird math to model it. If you use this at the very end of a section, it can lighten the mood while opening minds. It's so bizarre that the students can't apply their RealLife knowledge to it and they then can focus on the math. The math is so inappropriate to the situation is draws laughter and silliness.

I bring you "Love Mathematically."

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Cheating is not a valuable workplace skill.

Joanne threw out a provocative headline: Cheating is a valuable workplace skill, but she's a blogger so I can assume she might or might not actually agree with it.
Homeschool your kids so they learn to cheat, writes Penelope Trunk on her homeschooling blog. What schools call cheating — getting the right answer from others — is “effective workplace behavior” and a valuable skill, she argues.
Some 85 percent of students admit to cheating, Trunk writes. . . .
Stuyvesant, a New York City magnet school that’s harder to get into than Harvard, had an incredibly organized cheating system that rivals best practices for productivity types in Fortune 500 organizations. . . .

What made Stuyvesant’s cheating system so effective was that everybody had a certain topic that they would be expert on, and everyone else knew how to get the answers from that person. That’s a great workplace skill, and you do kids a disservice by training them to think that it’s improper behavior. 
Compared to their elders, Generation Y is “incredibly productive because they’re great collaborators.”
In the age of information, sharing information rules the day, and there’s no longer a place for a Lone Ranger at the office who works independently of everyone else. Today’s business world is too complicated and too networked for people to work so independently as to not be getting information from other people. 
Teachers have been pushing collaborative work on projects and peer tutoring for many years now. Collaborative work on tests is another matter.

Does Trunk have a point?
Cheating is not collaborative work. “What schools call cheating — getting the right answer from others — is “effective workplace behavior” and a valuable skill, she argues.” and she would be wrong.

 She wants to mask the true problem with excusing cheating by equating it with workplace skills. In school, you are learning how to do things. You are developing the abilities and information base and your “production” is that development. Collaboration doesn’t “work” unless you learn the material or skills. No one is expecting students to produce an advertisement campaign for real even though the task might approximate the steps to doing so.

School is about that base of fundamental skills that can be applied to any situation and the fundamental knowledge that all future tasks would appear to require. The problem with the Stuyvesant scandal was that the students weren't learning, someone else was doing it for them. There was also the whole "honesty" and "plagiarism" thing.

Which employee would you hire and trust?
Copying from other students isn’t learning because it doesn’t promote acquisition of either material or methods, it merely provides you with a meaningless result, quickly forgotten and never to be repeated. School isn’t about the result, it is about the learning.

Why is the workplace different? Because it is assumed that the workers already have achieved the “learning”, the acquisition of skills and methods, and the acquisition of a fundamental knowledge base. You can tolerate “research” and “getting the answer from others” if the job to be done is a unique job compared to the skillset of the worker. It is cheaper to pay for usage rights, or copyright, or independent contractor for that one job and then move on to the next. If the worker, however, cannot produce on his own, can ONLY copy from others, it is in the company’s best interest to fire that worker and hire someone who can.

Teaching students that cheating is okay and “effective workplace behavior” is directly damaging to the learning process even though it appears, on the surface, to be allowing the student to show more “knowledge” without spending any mental effort. Learning is hard because it is new. Avoiding that difficulty merely ensures that it will never occur.

It may seem more efficient and effective in the short run and certainly develops the person who can copy but fails at the long term goal of developing the person who can do the work.

If you give me the choice, I will always choose the method that develops the one who can tutor others, who can think and take responsibility, and who can be the source for all the lazy, stupid people, because that is how I define a successful and educated student, the “A” student: The kid you copy from.

Which worker would you pay?