Monday, February 8, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 6, 2016

What makes for an autism-friendly college?

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

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

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

Thursday, February 4, 2016

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

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

Extra Credit:

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

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

Enter your answers and explanations in the space provided.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Creative causality

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Confusing "relevance" with accesibility

“Kids need assignments that they can relate to.” Within today’s Edworld, one of the most pervasive notions is that students should be reading and writing about stuff they can connect to their personal lives. As educational outsiders have pointed out, this assumes kids can’t be interested in things that are distant, whether in time and place, from the mundane and familiar. It excludes the possibility that the long ago, the far away, or the esoteric, might engage children precisely because they are long ago, far away, or esoteric. But isn’t school supposed to open doors rather than close them? Isn’t it supposed to take children out of their egocentric worlds to places they’ve never been before?

In one sense, the Edworld does have a point. While it’s not the case that kids can’t be engaged by exotic or unfamiliar material, it is true that such material can be harder to make sense of. Works set in faraway times and places—particularly if they were also written in these faraway times or places—may employ an unfamiliar vocabulary and sentence structure, or assume an unfamiliar knowledge base. If enough words, sentences structures, or presupposed facts are elusive, it’s hard to get much out of the material, let alone actually enjoy it—even if you take the trouble to look everything up.

The Edworld’s recent harping on “relatable” material, furthermore, may reflect current realities. Blame screen time: blame social media; blame long-form TV shows that scratch the itch that used to drive people to read novels: for any number of reasons, today’s kids are doing less and less independent reading. Aggravating this, K-12 classes—particularly K-8 social studies classes—are providing less and less instruction in general background knowledge—whether about civics, power structures, military concepts, or life in Regency England. The result is that much of what kids used to readily relate to, however far away in time and setting, is no longer so accessible.

I suspect this is one reason why history is less and less popular—to the point where some history teachers don’t want to teach it any more. Consider these passages from The American Vision, a high school history text used in Philadelphia’s public high schools:

One of the most contentious developments of Jackson’s presidency was his campaign against the Second Bank of the United States. Like most Westerners and working people, President Jackson was suspicious of the Bank. He regarded it as a monopoly that benefitted the wealthy elite.

The bank had done a good job stabilizing the money supply and interest rates, but many western settlers, who needed easy credit to run their farms, were unhappy with the Bank’s lending policies…
What is meant by “the money supply” and “interest rates”? How would a national bank benefit the wealthy elite? What is “easy credit,” and why is it needed to run farms?
At first, excitement about the war inspired many Northern and Southern men to enlist, swamping recruitment offices and training camps. As the war dragged on and causalities rose, however, fewer young men volunteered, forcing both governments to resort to conscription.
What does “enlist” mean? What are “recruitment offices”? What is “conscription”?
To pass a new tariff, Taft needed the help of Speaker of the House Joseph G. Cannon. As Speaker, Cannon appointed all committees and decided which bills they handled. By exercising almost total control over debate, Cannon could push some bills through without discussion and see that others never came to a vote.
What does “exercising almost total control over debate” mean; why do Cannon’s powers as speaker lead to that control; and how does that control enable him to allow or prevent bills from coming to a vote?

These are all questions, I’m sure, that most of us can readily answer. But how many high school students have been provided with this vocabulary and background knowledge—which is not explained in situ in the Glencoe text? And how many of them are turned off to the material—and more generally hate history--simply because of this lack of preparation?

Moving on to Regency England, consider these passages from Pride and Prejudice:
Mr. Bennet's property consisted almost entirely in an estate of two thousand a year, which, unfortunately for his daughters, was entailed, in default of heirs-male, on a distant relation; and their mother's fortune, though ample for her situation in life, could but ill supply the deficiency of his. Her father had been an attorney in Meryton, and had left her four thousand pounds.
“Entailed on a distant relation”? “In default of heirs-male?” “The deficiency of his”?
Mrs. Bennet was prevented replying by the entrance of the footman with a note for Miss Bennet; it came from Netherfield, and the servant waited for an answer. Mrs. Bennet's eyes sparkled with pleasure, and she was eagerly calling out, while her daughter read -- 

"Well, Jane, who is it from? what is it about? what does he say? Well, Jane, make haste and tell us; make haste, my love."  
"It is from Miss Bingley," said Jane, and then read it aloud.  
"My dear Friend, -- If you are not so compassionate as to dine to-day with Louisa and me, we shall be in danger of hating each other for the rest of our lives, for a whole day's tête-à-tête between two women can never end without a quarrel. Come as soon as you can on the receipt of this. My brother and the gentlemen are to dine with the officers. -- Yours ever,
"With the officers!" cried Lydia. "I wonder my aunt did not tell us of that."  
"Dining out," said Mrs. Bennet; "that is very unlucky."  
"Can I have the carriage?" said Jane.  
"No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night."  
"That would be a good scheme," said Elizabeth, "if you were sure that they would not offer to send her home."  
"Oh! but the gentlemen will have Mr. Bingley's chaise to go to Meryton; and the Hursts have no horses to theirs."  
"I had much rather go in the coach."  
"But, my dear, your father cannot spare the horses, I am sure. They are wanted in the farm, Mr. Bennett, are not they?"  
"They are wanted in the farm much oftener than I can get them."  
"But if you have got them to-day," said Elizabeth, "my mother's purpose will be answered."
Even if they have figured out by now that Mrs. Bennett wants Jane to end up marrying Mr. Bingley (in part because Mr. Bennet's property being “entailed, in default of heirs-male, on a distant relation”), how many of today’s 9th graders will have the background knowledge (about horses vs. carriages and the significance of rain) required to make sense of this passage? Is the “carriage” the same as the “coach”? What is a “chaise”? Why Jane would have to “stay over” if she goes on horseback and it rains? What does Mr. Bennett mean by "They are wanted in the farm much oftener than I can get them”? What does Elizabeth mean by "But if you have got them to-day, my mother's purpose will be answered”?

Again, all of us may readily answer these questions, but how many students have absorbed enough of the relevant background knowledge by 9th grade? How many teachers are carefully going over and explaining these passages as needed?

When people today say they hate Jane Austen, it’s easy to conclude that it's because they have no interest in the class consciousness, arch conversation, ballroom dances, and “marrying well” that constituted middle and upper-class Regency England. But how do we know that the real problem isn’t simply that they no longer have the tools to make sense of the subtle ironies, compelling characters, lively dialogue, suspenseful plots, and still-relevant commentaries on human nature of a writer who is as engaging and entertaining to those who give her a chance as she is dismissed by others as frivolous and irrelevant?

Friday, January 29, 2016

Math problems of the week: a purported comparison of "previous math" with "CCSS math"

A side-by-side comparison of what are purported to be pre and post-Common Core math problems, courtesy the Foundation for Excellence in Education:

Extra Credit:

1. Where is the evidence that actual Common Core-inspired math problems for elementary and middle school lack problems of the sort exemplified by those purported to be "previous math problems"?

2. Where is the evidence that the "previous math problems" in elementary and middle school lacked problems of the sort exemplified by those purported to be "CCSS math questions."?

3. In what way is the so-called "previous math problem" for high school more "mechanical," and less about "solving equations as a process of reasoning," than the so-called "CCS math question"?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

John Dewey goes to college, II

[Great comments my last post! I wrote this post earlier, before seeing them, so there's some overlap between what I've written here and some of your thoughts.]

To pick up where I left off on Monday, I am sympathetic to some of the concerns and recommendations made in the recently released "Turning the Tide" But I find others of the proposed solutions less than satisfactory.

The only sure-fire way around applicant coaching, for example, isn't to advise people not to help students with their applications, but to proctor relevant parts of the application--in particular, the essay sections.

The best way to reduce AP-related stress (and, in the process, prepare students for college), isn't to eliminate the AP, but, as I discussed earlier, to improve academic instruction starting in elementary school.

The best way to level the academic playing field isn't to eliminate the SAT or ACT, even though, as with so many other things, scores on these tests correlate with family income. The whole point of aptitude tests, after all, was to give smart students from non-elite schools--students who may not have imbibed the same quantity and quality of academic content as their prep school peers--a better shot at college admissions. Yes, make college more affordable and student loans less burdensome; yes, do more outreach and simplify the application process; but no, don't eliminate the aptitude tests.

Finally, the best way for colleges to reduce the stress of the admissions rat race isn't to pretend they don't care about test scores and leadership roles--after all, how can they help caring about those things?--but to be much more transparent about the admissions process. Perhaps then students wouldn't feel the need to apply to twelve colleges in order to be sure they'll get into at least one.

I'm also worried by the authors' preference for the social, the emotional, the ethical, and the "common good"--both in community service activities and in college admissions. What happens to applicants who are relatively unsocial or emotionally immature: shy kids; kids on the autistic spectrum? What happens to applicants whose ethics and opinions about the common good clash with those of college admissions officers: applicants, who, say, volunteer for the Donald Trump campaign or protest at abortion clinics--because they truly believe they're acting for the common good?

And what does any of this have to do with qualifications for college? Isn't college readiness, primarily, about academic aptitude and achievement? Shouldn't college diversity include, not just diversity of race, ethnicity, and socio-economic background, but also diversity of opinion/ethics, as well as what people in the autism world called neurodiversity?

The authors' views about what colleges should value and, presumably, nurture, reminds me of John Dewey's views about K12 schools. They shouldn't, he said, be focused primarily on academic instruction, but rather on preparing students to be ethical participants in society. And so here we are, nearly a century later, dealing with the ever-rippling consequences of that philosophy. And Dewey, meanwhile, is ready to go to college.