Friday, March 21, 2014

More Misleading Material on the Common Core

This image of 3rd grade math homework is making the social media rounds today.

It is yet another out-of-context Common Core math problem with a "witty" response from a parent.

I know I've been posting about this a lot lately, but this pic represents the ongoing effort to win a debate using misleading information. And 'debate technique in the public discourse' is one of the main things I want this blog to focus on.

So, what's wrong with this picture? It is a father complaining that his son's homework has over-complicated a simple subtraction problem.

He writes, he can solve the problem "in under 5 seconds"!

And I say:
Sure, it was easy for this father to solve his 3rd grader's math problem using the techniques he learned in the 80s. I bet that father would also do better than most of the kids in gym class. He probably runs faster and jumps higher than most 8-year-olds.

This is an exercise intended to develop math skills. The 3rd graders are not engineers. They are just starting to learn about math. It should not be about how quickly the problem can be solved at this stage - it should be about whether or not the kids understand what happens during the subtraction process.

I honestly wish this kind of pedagogy had been in place when I was younger. I used these kinds of techniques when I was a kid in math class, but I was told I had to "Show my work." Which meant I had to do the problem the way the teacher showed me. As a result, I started to dislike math in second grade, and that relationship only got worse.

Later, when I wanted to pursue my interest in science, I was told that my weak math grades were going to get in the way.

I look at this problem and see two things: 1) a demonstration of mental math 2) a question that asks a student to think about how they think about math.

Sure, that's a little confusing for someone who doesn't teach using this method. I can understand how a parent would prefer for their kids to "just do the math," but I would prefer my teacher work on helping my kid understand the math.

I don't follow prescribed instructions very well - never have. I do much better when I am asked to consider a problem before solving it.

That is what this problem does: "Take a look at how one person solved this problem. What would you do differently? Maybe you would line the numbers up and subtract like the boy's father and then tell Jack how you solved the problem in 5 seconds. But remember, he's an adult telling an 8-year-old that he is better at math. Is that really the kind of person you want to be?"

Monday, March 17, 2014

Good Anecdotal Evidence and the Common Core

If you are interested in the Common Core debate, the Answer Sheet has a great post today.

It presents the accounts of three K-12 teachers who are implementing the Common Core.

It is an eye-opening read.

And if you want to see how and why anecdotal evidence can be useful in an active debate, it's a great post to examine.

Anecdotal evidence is tricky. It's often tempting to tell students to avoid using it.

All too often, students new to evidence-based argument will make claims like: 'The Common Core is good/bad because I know a person who had this good/bad experience. And that is why we should support/get rid of the Common Core.'

But today's Answer Sheet post makes clear the value of a relevant anecdote.

Allow me to demonstrate:
A mental math lesson that got under the
skin of many Common Core opponents
In the Common Core debate, many of the arguments are rooted in assumptions about how the Common Core impacts teachers or students at the classroom level. For example, people have presented textbooks or homework assignments to me and claimed, 'This is what the Common Core looks like.'

Let's say you want to demonstrate that the impact of the Common Core is more nuanced than that - that it requires more context to get at the actual impact.

Well you could just say as much, but you're going to come off as a jerk. The other person is likely to hear some version of this: "Sure, I see your evidence, but I am not impressed. You're understanding of this issue is too simple."

This is where presenting anecdotal evidence as a counter-narrative comes in handy.

If a person presents a math lesson they don't like as proof that the learning of mental math is useless or confusing or pointless, I can respond with this account from a forth-grade math teacher:
One of the most defining features of the Common Core is how it introduces concepts to students through different modes of comprehension. By the end of a six-week Common Core unit on fractions, my students were talking about, writing about, drawing, and playing with fractions. When they encountered the above problem on a quiz, some students drew a picture, while others found common denominators. A few used a strategy called common numerators, which requires a deep understanding of the denominator of a fraction. One student drew the fractions on a number line. The takeaway: The students in my class were able to compare these fractions in no fewer than five different ways.
Now, I haven't proven that the Common Core is great with that anecdote, but I have shown that the debate is more complicated than how it had been presented earlier.

That is the value of the anecdote. It helps to ground abstractions and statistics.

You have to be careful. You can't assert too much based on an anecdote, but they do have a function.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

American Universities as International Universities

The New York Times has an article on the challenges students and universities are facing as international enrollment is on the rise.
English is just one of numerous challenges for the foreigners that must be addressed in the transition year. Many say they are used to classes in which only the teachers speak, they do not call on students, students have few choices about what work they will do, and grades are based entirely on a few written exams.
This was the challenge I faced at the beginning of my career when I was teaching at American colleges over in Hungary, and it has become the challenge I face here at UC Davis. All but one of the courses I teach this year are for international students.

I love this challenge.

My classroom is tremendously interesting, engaging, and dynamic. My students talk about how different the learning style is here (sure, it's because I make them, but once they start, they do get going). In the doing they are actively reflecting on the learning process - linking it to their own experience.

The language issue is real, and it does require more work, but I like my work (even when I don't).

A diverse classroom should not be seen as a burden. It is a learning tool. Transitioning and crossing boundaries are important stages in the learning process.

The NYT article covers how private companies are stepping in to help international students make the transition.

There are some ethical issues to weigh there. And there are some educational issues there.

Worth the read and worth some serious consideration.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Science of GIFs

MIT researchers are looking into the science of GIFs.
We were talking about GIFs one day,” Hu told Quartz, “and we realized that they’re becoming more and more serious of a medium. They’re more popular, they’re used for more things.” Buzzfeed, for example, recently used GIFs to explain what was going on in Ukraine—reaching an audience that otherwise might have ignored the news. “And we realized,” Hu said, “that we could quantify this usage.
As I've mentioned before, I'm looking for ways to get my students to use GIFs in digital compositions. This kind of research might just help me make my case.

On Hofstadter's Ideas on Anti-Intellectualism

There is an excellent read on how Richard Hofstadter's idea of anti-intellectualism is still powerfully relevant today on The Daily Beast.
Obsessing over an area of study’s practicality knows no ideological boundary. On a recent episode of Stossel, the libertarian host and his guests discussed the “college con”, paying particularly close attention to universities’ mandating that students take courses in fields that are not career oriented, such as philosophy, literature, and cultural studies. A few days after Fox Business Network aired the anti-intellectual episode of Stossel, liberal website Salon ran an article, “Just Say to No to College”, in which the writer dismissed the concepts of “critical thinking” and “intellectual enrichment” as “dubious buzzwords.” One might expect such Neanderthal sentiments in the locker room of high school freshman, but the irony of John Stossel—an intelligent man and fine journalist with degrees from Princeton and the University of Chicago—encouraging young people to reject education is equal parts absurdity and hilarity.
Hofstadter had a lot to say about the issues that I'm caught up in lately, and he said it well.
A university is not a service station. Neither is it a political society, nor a meeting place for political societies. With all its limitations and failures, and they are invariably many, it is the best and most benign side of our society insofar as that society aims to cherish the human mind.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Professor Hit 'Send' and Boom

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article describing how a statement about current events in a message from a professor at UW LaCrosse turned into a barrage of hateful emails, a conservative-media feeding frenzy, and an administrative betrayal.

Professor Slocum's geography class was impacted by the government shutdown last year. Students were not going to be able to access federal databases required for an assignment. Slocum's email suggested that the shutdown was caused by Tea Party Republicans in the House of Representatives.

This strikes me as a non-controversial statement, since everyone who was paying attention in the run up to the government shutdown saw Tea Party representative Ted Cruz calling for a shutdown.
A screenshot of that course-related email was posted by a student, and things took on an absurd life of their own.
Vitriolic emails from strangers denounced the message [Slocum] had sent to 18 students the night before.
Some threatened to have her fired. Others described plans to lobby state lawmakers to stop giving tax money to her college.
"Clearly you have forgotten that the student is your customer," one person wrote. "They pay you for services rendered." Another told Ms. Slocum: "Quit your job because you are a worthless douchebag." By lunch, the professor would find herself up against an entire network of conservative organizations.
The Chronicle's article is a long read, but it is worth it. These events speak to issues of academic freedom, freedom of speech, classroom discourse, the function of the university, digital literacy, and digital privacy.

It's okay to be angry while reading the article. It is an angry-making story in which the behaviors of trolls and bitter small-minded people are reinforced.

The last and most aggravating words come from the student who initially posted the professor's email, Katie Johnson; the student who, after the email became a "scandal" on the conservative blogosphere (see here, here, and here), continued to feed the flames, sending even more material to conservative media outlets.
[Johnson] takes comfort, she says, in knowing professors have been made "more aware of political speech and what they shouldn’t say."
Before I get into why that is a horrible and ignorant thing to say, let me be clear, I have zero issues with someone holding a set of political beliefs different from my own. I like to argue with those people, but that doesn't make their views more or less valuable.

However, to include political speech on a list of things professors "shouldn't say" is an anti-democratic, anti-education attitude that people of all political persuasions should reject. And I say that as someone who actively works to keep my politics out of my lectures and lessons.

No one in a university classroom needs to be shielded from conventional political points of view (especially ones as banal as 'The Tea Party caused the shutdown'). To suggest otherwise is to misunderstand the role of the university.

A university classroom is populated by educated adults getting ready to take complex ideas out of the classroom and into other settings -- settings where politics, relationships, culture, and countless other factors will play a role. If an adult is afraid that their politics are threatened by one geography professor's point of view, then that adult's politics are a bit too delicate and underdeveloped in the first place.

Can you imagine becoming a genetic engineer who has never discussed the politics of genetic engineering? Or becoming a surgeon who avoids talking about the funding of healthcare? Or a geographer who ignores political boundaries?

Bad Argument! Stay Down!

Last week I got a little too involved with an anti Common Core post that went viral.

Thanks to Boing Boing for pointing me to this blogger who explained the misconceptions surrounding that post.

On Facebook, I argued that the photo looked to be a lesson on mental math and that the reasons to teach mental math are more-than-reasonable.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg on this. This photo is an unethical persuasive text for all kinds of reasons.

Misrepresenting the Education Process:
The photo is a parent's reproduction of one part of a lesson, but it is presented as though it is the end product of a math lesson.
This photo uses a simple math problem to show how kids can learn a new problem-solving strategy. Then once they get the strategy, it can be used to solve more complex problems.
Decidedly cool.

Misrepresenting the Common Core:
How many times are we going to have to repeat it: The Common Core is not a list of lessons that must be taught. It is a set of standards that students should meet. How teachers get students to meet those standards is not dictated by the Common Core.
Now, you could critique the decision to set new standards without showing teachers how to reach those standards, but that is a different debate - one we can't even have if people don't understand the basics of the program.

Misrepresenting Progress in Education:
Many of the commenters who shared this photo asked some variation of "Why should kids learn a new version of math? The math I learned works just fine."
This line of reasoning infuriates me, because it suggests that there is no place for innovation or improvement in education.
The thinking behind mental math is great: Rather than memorize processes for doing math, students should learn the meaning of the functions they perform.
That is a new(ish) idea in math education. We want students to be comfortable with numbers and to be "math literate," but the old way did not promote those things. So we're creating new and better ways to teach.

One Facebook response to my comment was a person saying that any success he's had in life is in spite of his school experience. And that's a reasonable thing to say. I think a lot of people feel that way. Neil deGrasse Tyson said he feels that way in a recent interview. But isn't that all the more reason to encourage change and innovation?

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Writing Will Be Optional on The SAT

The essay will no longer be required on the SAT. According to today's New York Times:
The essay, required since 2005, will become optional. Those who choose to write an essay will be asked to read a passage and analyze how its author used evidence, reasoning and stylistic elements to build an argument.
I'm of two minds on this.

  1. The old essay requirement was not a very good measure of a student's ability to write. The new one is certainly an improvement, and that is nice to see. 
  2. I don't like seeing writing made optional on a major college admissions test. Even a flawed writing requirement is better than none.
In my ten years teaching writing, I have had to correct the misconception held by far too many young students that you can pick a major or a profession that doesn't require writing. 

I am afraid this move by the College Board is going to reinforce that misconception. 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Why Learning with The Internet Is Awesome - Episode I, Cutting Boards

So I checked out Reddit this morning, and the top story was a Today I Learned (TIL) from frogontrombone:
TIL that contrary to popular belief, plastic cutting boards are more likely to harbor bacteria than wood ones. New plastic boards are easier to clean, but ones with cuts are nearly impossible to completely disinfect, whereas wood ones absorb and kill bacteria, regardless of age or use.
That was interesting to me, because like so many people, I was under the impression the opposite was true.

So, I looked to see where this information was coming from. You can only trust Reddit so much.

Turns out that the original poster (OP) on Reddit learned this from what must be a relatively old summary of research done by a Professor Dean O. Cliver here at UC Davis, and the research looks solid.

Hooray for my school! Right?
Cool useful research and the top spot on Reddit? Not bad.

So, I searched for the professor only to learn he passed away in 2011. This was reported in a faculty document from the University of Wisconsin.

Wait a second!
The University of Wisconsin? That's where I went as an undergrad.

Turns out that Professor Cliver did the research that landed him on Reddit's front page at UW-Madison and soon afterwards took a job here at UC Davis.

The man had a fascinating career, one that involved study of the cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee. Something I remember all too well from when I was a junior in high school (I didn't get it, but know people who did, and I had friends who had to boil their drinking water).

And now I am never going to forget why/how wooden cutting boards are more sanitary than plastic. My behavior is going to change, and I will always be able to explain why.

The associations I was able to make and the speed at which I made them, that's a kind of learning that the internet is very good at facilitating. It's awesome.

So, I hope to write about these kinds of learning experiences more often and create a series of Why Learning with The Internet Is Awesome (WLwTIIA) posts here. I hope they are informative.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Cosmos is Coming

Anyone else excited about Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson?

The write up in the New York Times got me fired up all over again.

I really enjoy educational entertainment, and the original Cosmos is in rare company as some of the best edutainment ever.

I also think Tyson is very good at communicating about science.

I hope the show has the kind of cultural impact that the original had.