Monday, August 30, 2010

"Hell is other people"

Just back from a two-week family vacation (posting blog entries en route), I’ve been thinking about how that famous line from Sartre’s “No Exit” applies to parents of autistic children. For, so often, it’s the presence of other people that makes life with autism most challenging. If we autism families had the planet to ourselves, life would be so much easier.

True, being the parent of an autistic child, having contributed my share to his genetic makeup, I’m not the most social being on earth. In particular, I’m not the kind of person for whom the sudden appearance of strangers in a place I’ve been occupying by myself (or with my close kin) fills the heart with joy. 

But when one of the close kin you’re with is prone to loud outbursts, bumping into people, grabbing their fingers, charging through groups instead of saying “excuse me,” calling us “dumby a*hole,” holding forth on taboo topics, and, finally, wandering into rooms uninvited, turning on the ceiling fans, and photographing them with his camera, the sudden appearance of others in previously unpopulated settings makes the heart sink.

Yes, J’s public behavior, overall, has improved over the years. But, with every half inch he grows, with every half tone his voice descends to, and with every phoneme, vocabulary word, and syntactic structure he masters, public expectations of him keep rising, and rising, and rising. Once he starts looking like a full-fledged adult, what sort of “other people” await us?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Our unsung intelligentsia

Sometimes I wonder if the most educated people in the world are also the most hidden from view. The people I'm thinking of spend little time promoting themselves to the public and most of their time reading. And reading, and reading--deeply, broadly, and with an open mind.

Unlike your typical academic, what they read is unconstrained by specialization and publication pressures. Nor is it filtered through the prism of a prevailing Theory to which they must show allegiance, or the prism of a personal thesis that has become their professional badge of identity (and/or the centerpiece of a tenure application).

Their motivation for reading isn't to conduct a literature review within their specialization, or to mine for further evidence for their latest hypotheses or against those of their competitors. What motivates them, instead, is pure curiosity. 

The people I'm thinking may be "failed academics"--nth year graduate students or unemployed PhD-holders--or they may be people who opted against an academic career precisely because the narrow focus and commitment to prevailing theories didn't appeal to them. They may have trust funds, but most have day jobs; they tend not to have children or other commitments that would take time away from their precious hours for reading.

I suspect there are a lot of people out there who fit this description--full of knowledge and wisdom. Some of them would be happy to share it with the rest of us--though many of us may resent the intrusion by lay people into what we've claimed as our certified, professional areas of expertise. 

Most of this quiet, agenda-free, wide-ranging intelligence goes unnoticed--except, perhaps, here and there in the blogosphere. Wouldn't it be nice, somehow, to give it a broader platform?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Math problem of the week: 1900's algebra vs. Core-Plus Mathematics

I. From the final problems in Wentworth's New School Algebra (published in 1898):

II. From the final problems in the contemporary high-school text, Core-Plus Mathematics Contemporary Math In Context, Course 2:

III. Extra Credit

Estimate the ratio of time expenditure to mathematics practice in each exercise.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mainstreaming with a little twist

In recent article entitled "A School District That Takes the Isolation Out of Autism" the New York Times reports on how the Madison public schools "are nationally known for including children with disabilities in regular classes."

Having seen from personal experience how mainstreaming can mean keeping a child out of special ed classrooms but not necessarily including him in regular classrooms, I was curious to read more about how well this program works. In fact, according to the article, Madison-style mainstreaming appears to mean more than full inclusion, with autistic kids included not only in regular classes, but also in after school activities.

But as I read, my skepticism perked up. Perhaps the more-than-fully-included children are like those at the Kinney Summer Camp in Philadelphia: kids whose autism is so mild that the neurotypical campers with whom they are intermixed think autism is a "tiny disability;" so mild that the reporter filing feel-good reports about the camp for our local radio station reports that it's hard to tell who is autistic and who isn't.

The one autistic student we learn about is a high school junior named Garner Moss, whose parents moved to Madison because they were tired of fighting for full inclusion in Tennessee. And, while the article doesn't quantify Garner's autism, all available clues suggest that it is at the "tiny" end of the spectrum.

He has at least one friend; he responds when people talk to him; he "rides the bus downtown to his father’s law office"; now 17, he will be "on his own [without an aide] in most classes, including English, chemistry and personal finance." As for his autism, it seems to be most apparent in his ability to remember where things are, his memorization of transportation routes, and his fascination with elevators.

Accompanying my son's special talents--math and engineering--and special interests--ceiling fans, Back to the Future, the number two--is a fascination with mischief making and getting a rise out of people. In class without an aide, he'd be totally out of control.

The most difficult behaviors of Garner's that appear in this article are a tendency to "explode from pent-up energy," and to "run away and collapse on the floor in despair if he had to change rooms." But these behaviors appear to have abated. The only current behavioral difficulties the Times reports on show up not in the classroom, but in Garner's extracurricular activities. His greatest problem in after-school track is that he can't tie his track shoes and that:
He is not one of the fastest on the high school cross-country team, but he runs like no other. “Garner enjoys running with other kids, as opposed to past them,” said Casey Hopp, his coach.
As for the swim team:
On cold mornings, no one wants to be first in the water, so Garner thinks it’s a riot to splash everyone with a colossal cannonball. “They get angry,” the coach, Paul Eckerle, said. “Then they see it’s Garner, and he gets away with it. And that’s how practice begins.”
My son got kicked off the math team the third time he deliberately wrote on the whiteboard in permanent sharpie marker. After-school chess and soccer works out only if I attend also and keep a constant eye on him.

Here's how Garner's friend characterizes Garner: “He puts a little twist in our lives we don’t usually have without him.”

A little twist. Sounds suspiciously like "a tiny disability."

The harder question is how best to educate those who may be as intelligent as Garner is, but who put more than a little twist into the lives of their teachers and fellow students. I'm not sure that even Madison has figured out the answer to this one.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Inflationary pressures and gifted education

Education blogger Walt Gardner's recent post about how the U.S. education system is failing to meet the needs of education students inspired me to post a comment recapping my general take on gifted education:

Why not simply offer highly challenging classes-- and by this I mean classes that are much more challenging than what today's schools typically offer, with tough, consistently enforced standards--and let anyone who wants to go ahead and enroll in them. (And make sure they are well-publicized so that all students and parents know about them). At the same time, make it easy for students to switch to less challenging classes if they find themselves floundering.

This not only gets rid of problematic labels, but places the power to choose classes where it should be: with the students and their parents.

This is how things worked at my relatively large (size is key!) high school--multiple classes at multiple levels of challenge, open to anyone who wanted to give them a try.
Walt then pointed out to me that some people would object to this on the grounds that students who enroll in classes they aren't able to handle may not always drop out when they can't achieve: "Marginal students will force teachers to devote inordinate time to them, diluting the overall quality of the gifted classes." He noted that something similar happened with the City University of New York in 1969, when it granted admission to every high school graduate in New York City, with the idea that students who couldn't handle the coursework would drop out.

I replied that at my high school what seemed to deter students from remaining in classes they couldn't handle were the tough grading standards. But as I wrote this, I realized that we're living in a different world. Today's teachers are besieged by parents and students whenever they give out low grades. I've heard some teachers say that find these exchanges so unpleasant that they preemptively give out high grades to everyone. I certainly feel these pressures myself--they are extraordinarily powerful and hard to resist. Even when I think I'm resisting them, part of me suspect I'm not. The result is a cycle of inflation in which even today's B's are considered bad grades.

In such a climate, a free market of classes of different difficulty levels and grading standards is no longer possible. And so, instead of being able to dispense with the gifted label as my high school once was, schools are under increasing pressure to give it out--along with all those A's.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Math problem of the week: 5th grade Everyday Math vs. Singapore Math

I. One of the final assignments in the 5th grade Everyday Math Student Math Journal, Volume 2:

II. Some of the final problems in the 5th grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics Workbook 5B:

III. Extra Credit:

Assuming Everyday Math students are better at planning trips, what might Singapore Students be better at doing?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Drawing the right lessons about creativity, II

Ever since I started looking at the world in terms of "left brain" and "right brain" it has struck me that the best creative output involves both types of thinking. For example, creative writing would seem to involve intuition, holistic thinking, visual imagery, and empathy, on the one hand, and linear progressions, verbal precision, auditory sensitivity, and the mechanics of plotting, on the other.

However, I recently came across some interactive creative writing tools on a website sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English that would seem to combine the worst of both left and right-brain thinking: interactive but inane visual aids and reductionist, formulatic strategies for plotting and character development. Consider these:

The Story Map

The Comic Creator

The Bio-Cube

Though I doubt any efficacy studies have been conducted, my guess is that these tools are more likely to drain away creativity rather than to inspire it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Managing vs. educating autistic children

The more I explore the industry of educating autistic children, the more it occus to me that there are two different models out there.

The first one is the management model. Here the top priority is making the autistic student manageable in the classroom. If the child acts up, the first assumption is that the underlying problem is the child's problem: typically, something having to do with attention or sensory processing. The solution is medication (the latest fad is Risperdol) or some sort of "sensory diet" (a weighted vest, a stress ball, time out of the classroom for running around or swinging).

The second model is the education model. Here the top priority is figuring out how to best engage the child in the academic curriculum. While this might include attention enhancing medications and frequent breaks, the first question to be asked, always, is whether the child's lack of attention, fidgets, or misbehavior stem from problems with the task at hand. Are the directions comprehensible? Is the reading over his or her head? Is the group discussion too difficult to follow? Are the math problems too easy? Is the writing assignment too open-ended?

The first model is the easier one to follow--especially if the goal is full inclusion in regular classrooms with minimal disruptions to classroom routines. But if the goal is actual education, then the first thing to look at is whether the assignments that are supposed to be educating the child are actually having this effect--rather than other effects that too many people are only too happy to "manage" away.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Where every child is labeled "gifted"

Well, not every child. But it was just reported to me that about 70% of 22nd [typo: 2nd] graders in Montgomery County, Maryland are labeled "gifted," though only about 30% can read at grade level. Since gifted labeling is largely a function of parental initiative, this phenomenon begs the question of why so many of today's parents are clamoring for it. True, Montgomery County's parents may be especially ambitious, but my sense from the many, many parents of gifted children that I've come across is that they are part of a larger trend.

Might this trend have something to do with current grading practices, where top grades aren't the special distinction they once were? If grades no longer distinguish my child from others, there's always giftedness.

Or might it have something to do with how watered down the curriculum is compared to what it once was--especially in math, literature, history, and analytical writing? Gifted labeling may seem like the only way to secure for our children those things that more kids used to have access to whether or not they were "gifted."

Either way, the proliferation of giftedness may be less a happy realization of the Lake Wobegon Effect, and more an indication that something is rotten in the state of education.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Math problem of the week: landmark numbers and made-up problems in 3rd grade Investigations vs. Singapore Math

I. From the end of the 3rd grade (TERC) Investigations Landmarks in the Hundreds Booklet.

2. From the 3rd grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 3B workbook:

III. Extra Credit

Singapore Math does not emphasize "landmark numbers"; Investigations does not emphasize the multiplication tables. Which students are better off?

Compare and contrast the madeup problems in Singapore Math and Investigations Math.

Discuss the importance of familiarizing family members with landmark numbers.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Are humanities majors more compassionate than science majors?

A recent New York Times article perpetuates the notion that people who major in the humanities are more humanistic than those who major in science. The article's focus is the Humanities and Medicine Program at the Mount Sinai Medical School in New York, which every year admits up to 35 students who have skipped the three usual requirements: organic chemistry, physics and the MCATs.

Not only are the 35 students allowed to skip these requirement, in fact, they are required to go even further. They apply early on in their college careers-- in their sophomore or junior years--and must agree to choose their majors from within the humanities or social sciences. No physics or biology majors need apply, even if they have avoided organic chemistry and the MCATs. And forget computer scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

Following a recent study comparing Mount Sinai's humanitarians to other medical students, the program is being touted as one that produces equally capable doctors who are more well-rounded, more inquisitive, and better at relating to patients than traditional doctors are. The study, published in the journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, was conducted by the program’s founder, Dr. Nathan Kase, and by Mount Sinai’s dean for medical education, Dr. David Muller. As the Times reports:

The peer-reviewed study compared outcomes for 85 students in the Humanities and Medicine Program with those of 606 traditionally prepared classmates from the graduating classes of 2004 through 2009, and found that their academic performance in medical school was equivalent.
They scored lower on Step 1 of the Medical Licensing Examination, taken after the second year of medical school, which generally correlates with scientific knowledge. But over all, they ranked about the same in honors grades and in the percentage in the top quarter of the class.

Weighing in on the humanitarian hypothesis, the Times states that:
For decades, the medical profession has debated whether pre-med courses and admission tests produce doctors who know their alkyl halides but lack the sense of mission and interpersonal skills to become well-rounded, caring, inquisitive healers.

The Times then quotes Dr. Kase on the traditional set of requirements:
" also diminishes; it makes science into an obstacle rather than something that is an insight into the biology of human disease.”

Doctors who are equally capable, but more empathetic and inquisitive than average. What more could you wish for? But is this really what's going on?

As far as academically capability goes, the article's fine print reveals that the admissions process still uses traditional gambits to ensure bright students with a strong foundation in science. Applicants must maintain a 3.5 grade-point average. If they are admitted, they must take basic biology and chemistry. Before attending Mount Sinai Medical School, they must enroll in its summer boot camp, which provides "abbreviated" organic chemistry and physics courses. And standardized test scores still help determine admissions, namely, high school SAT scores. Actual admissions, the Times reports, "heavily favor elite schools." Students accepted in 2009 had average math and verbal SAT scores of 1444, and G.P.A.s of 3.74.

So it doesn't really surprise me that these students do well as doctors. In fact, I've always questioned the usefulness of the large quantities of detailed knowledge that the MCATs require--given how much doctors later seem to forget. And I've often wondered how often doctors actually apply general principles from physics or inorganic chemistry. It seems to me that overall intelligence, combined with a basic foundation in science, is much more predictive than whether you know your alkyl halides, or your General Relativity, or your VSEPR Theory, much of which, I suspect, few doctors remember, let alone apply, by the time they practice medicine.

What about the idea that Mount Sinai's humanitarians are in fact more sensitive and inquisitive? Here's what the Times reports about actual empirical findings, as opposed to wishful assertions:
The study found that, by some measures, the humanities students made more sensitive doctors: they were more than twice as likely to train as psychiatrists (14 percent compared with 5.6 percent of their classmates) and somewhat more likely — though less so than Dr. Kase had expected — to go into primary care fields, like pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology (49 percent compared with 39 percent). Conversely, they avoid some fields, like surgical subspecialties and anesthesiology.
But what surprised the authors the most, they said, was that humanities students were significantly more likely than their peers to devote a year to scholarly research (28 percent compared with 14 percent).
The idea that psychiatrists are better at interpersonal relations than specialty surgeons and anesthesiologists does not square with my personal experiences. Some of the nastiest, least inquisitive academics I'm familiar with, lacking the humility and openness to new ideas that comes from exacting standards of truth, are Critical Theorists, not physicists. The idea that humanities majors are more compassionate and broadly inquisitive than science majors is one of the biggest right-brain biases of our time.

As family physician Bertie Bregman writes in the New York Times Letters section:
It is tempting to believe that the study of humanities would naturally produce more humane physicians, as the research done at Mount Sinai School of Medicine seems to conclude. But while the humanities can provide a unique path to insight, that doesn’t necessarily translate into better, more sensitive doctors.

Empathy and compassion in young doctors are as common in chemistry and biology majors as they are in classics majors.
A surprising observation? It shouldn't be.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Other parents and brainy kids

I learned last night of another sort of bias against left-brain children--children who, for all their weaknesses, tend to do well in academic subjects.  At a social event populated largely by parents of such children, one parent told me about how they'd ended up pulling their son out of their friendly local Quaker school. One big reason: the other parents, who were badmouthing them around the school, blaming them for their 8-year-old's advanced academic skills.  Surely the only reason this boy knew so much more math than his peers did was because his parents, blatantly defying the school's egalitarianism and studied avoidance of competition, were ruthlessly pushing him ahead.

In some sense the parents were responsible. By purchasing Singapore Math books and encouraging their son to work through them, they were enabling him to get ahead of the school's Everyday Math curriculum. But the reason they did this was that their son seemed bored by school math, yet interested in math.

Another set of parents at this social event, a Turkish couple appalled at how laughably low-level 2nd grade Everyday Math is compared with 2nd grade math in Turkey, has followed suit. They're concerned that they, too, will end up feeling unwelcome at the school because of the animosity from other parents that will likely ensue.

Openness and tolerance mean different things to different people.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The year in review

My data, of course, is limited, as J tells almost as little as his teachers and aides do. I have two main sources.

My first source is what comes home in J's backpack:

1. Science quizzes with failing grades

2. Reassurances that these quizzes don't count--apparently they weren't even supposed to be handed back-- and that he's earning an A in science.

3. A final grade of B in science, based on one B (for the first timester) and two A's (for the second and third trimester). The same thing happened last year.

4. Vocabulary quizzes that started out several grade levels ahead of his measured vocabulary level, with words like "enamored," and then later (after I had to go at some length to explain why this wasn't a good idea) dropped down to words several grade levels below his measured vocabulary level, like "garage."

My second source is what I'm told by other parents who volunteer at the school, and by outside professionals whose job it is to observe J:

1. That J appears to be spending most of his time outside the classrooms his IEP has placed him in, either at a table in the hallway, or in a small private room, or on the playground (where he rarely mixes with peers).

2. That he spends the majority of his time in school being educated by non-educators (either his tss or a classroom aide.)

Mainstreaming, it would appear, sometimes means nothing more than not placing a child in a special education classroom.