Sunday, March 31, 2013

Literature appreciation, social inferences, and social skills therapy

My recent Atlantic article, Are Grading Trends Hurting Socially Awkward Kids, received many comments addressing whether students should be assessed on their presentation skills or on their ability to cooperate with others. One thing that didn't get much attention was what I wrote about social inferences in reading assignments:

Language arts classes, meanwhile, tend to favor books by authors like Judy Blume and Jerry Spinelli: realistic fiction starring recognizable school-aged peers in social settings. To the socially adept, these books are highly accessible. But the socially oblivious may find themselves unable to answer the reading comprehension questions, many of which require social inferences...
One person who did share thoughts on this is Disability Rights Advocate Stephen Hinkle. Writing directly to me, he says:
I am a person with autism who has struggled with narrative reading all my life. Questions like "why was this piece written" or "what would author X's response be to a piece by author Y", or questions about the characters' relationships I could hardly decipher. On the other hand, I can read non-fiction books, websites, etc about science, math, technology, nature, court cases, etc really well.
...Many of the questions about the characters deal with relationships, friends, dating, sexuality, mannerisms, and imply background knowledge that is inferred indirectly. To process this, this would require the child to at least have a background knowledge of these types of relationships.
Stephen Hinkle points out that these issues surface in other media as well:
Even on TV, many people with social skills deficits often watch TV channels in which the programming is non-inferential such as CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, Discovery, TLC, The History Channel, Biography, NatGeo, Military Channel, Investigation Discovery, GSN, NASA-TV, Animal Planet, TruTV, HGTV, and the Science Channel. On the other hand, many of the sitcoms, dramas, soap operas, etc require social knowledge to understand the subtle cues in them.
The remedy?
Kids who struggle with social skills need direct instruction in the social skills that are relevant for their age, and be taught in real contexts they can relate to (not just one on one in the speech room). What I propose is direct instruction in recreation, leisure, school spirit, manners, etiquette, conversation skills, friendships, relationships, and at the high school level dating. The social skills instruction needs to be based on the child's chronological age (i.e. using age appropriate activities), and with the right accommodations for their functioning level.
And this instruction needs to encompass much more than what traditional social skills therapy does:
When I was a kid, all they did for so-called social skills was one-on-one in the speech room working on vocabulary and conversation.

...A lot of these behavior scale tests do not accurately test the rec/leisure part with activity specific knowledge of many extracurricular and school spirit type settings including playgrounds, playrooms, day care rooms, clubs, sports, visual arts, performing arts, dances, science fairs, and others. 
Proper social skills instruction, in turn, may not only improve social skills, but also the appreciation of literature:
I predict that for some kids, teaching social skills before literature reading may make these kinds of readings easier for them to handle.
And, by extension, the appreciation of movies and TV shows, the majority of which are infused with potentially baffling social interactions.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Math problems of the week: multiplying polynomials in traditional vs. Reform algebra

I. The only problems involving polynomial multiplication in the Integrated Mathematics 2 textbook (p. 517 and p. 642)



II. The first problem set in the Special Rules of Multiplication chapter of Wentworth's New School Algebra (published in 1898) (pp. 76-77):


III. Extra Credit: 

1. Reform Math is obsessed with patterns, but not at the level of abstraction seen in Wentworth's New School Algebra. Here we have a discussion of how to turn certain products of trinomial pairs into products of binomial pairs of the form (A+B)(A-B). Write a personal reflection on how practice recognizing abstract mathematical patterns and conforming expressions to certain special abstract patterns might prepare you for higher level math.

2. Integrated Mathematics is one of the rare Reform Math texts that provides an index. I used it to locate the polynomial multiplication problems given above. In the process, I noticed that the "Multicultural connections" entry is about ten times as long as the "Multiplication" entry. (see below). Discuss.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Autism Diaries XLVI: Aligning self-interest

There are two things that have made J much easier over the years than the tantrumming, eloping, non-stop mischief-making child he once was. One is the ever greater impulse control that has come, mercifully, with his maturing brain. The other is that his self-interest is increasingly aligned with ours. At long last, he's realized that the adults around him have his best interests at heart. At long last, he sees that it pays off to behave well and do his homework.

Like many teenage boys, he still resists bucking down and getting things done, particularly in subjects he doesn't like. Even in preferred subjects like math and chemistry, he can be overconfident and decide not to study, or fail to read (or understand) the directions. And when he performs poorly, he prefers to throw out his work and pretend that nothing happened rather than to let us know and seek help.

But lately I've been seeing things I never thought I'd see. For example, J, after just one request from me, going to his backpack, getting out what he needs, sitting down at the dining room table, and completing an assignment--on his own. Or this in-class assignment for English class that he appears also to have completed independently:

The things that get people to change is when they learn something new, new things get invented, or when there are new things happening. For example, when the printing press was invented, people don't have to keep writing the book over and over again.
When the train was invented, people get from one place to another faster. Because horses don't go fast enough, and sometimes need some rest. And when the airplane was invented, people can just go from 1 country to another in hours.
When I move from 1 house to another, I started going somewhere near my house instead of my old house, and started going to a closer store. And I started going to the park near my house.
I used to climb on the chair to change the speeds or fix a wrong direction of ceiling fans in houses. But when I started growing taller, I don't have to stand on chairs nearly as much to change the speeds or fix a wrong direction.
When I learned about the wii, and first play wii in someone else's house, I started making money to try to get a wii. I still don't have enough money to buy a wii, and I really want to buy a wii. I need $200 dollars now.
I discovered this assignment at the bottom of his backpack, all crumpled up. He got a 75 on it and probably intended to throw it away. I'm glad he didn't. Though I'm not sure what the prompt was, this is one of the most extended, sincere "reflections" J's ever written. Mixed in, of course, are some falsehoods--but only a couple of them this time.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Autism Diaries XLV: J on the virtues of groups--in criminal justice

So J and I were sitting in the kitchen the other day, discussing one of his favorite topics: crimes and punishments. We discussed burglary, booby traps, impersonations, disturbing the peace, and all their various legal consequences. When he cited 13 (his favorite unlucky number) as the number of people on a jury, I noted that only 12 make the actual decision. Thinking about this group of 12, he suddenly said "Are animals smarter than germs?"

"What do you mean?"

"Are many cells smarter than one cell?" 

Oh, ok. He's proposing that single cell bacteria are less intelligent than multi-cellular animals, and then connecting this to the intelligence of a single juror vs. a group of 12.

It's sort of a variation on the wisdom of crowds--a popular meme that J, who rarely reads or listens, has apparently come up with totally on his own. Who'd have thunk that a child on the spectrum would appreciate the virtues of group think--even in the best sense of the term?

For there are some virtues in this kind of collaboration. I know: I've served on a jury. And I still remember how relieved I was that I didn't have to decide that really bizarre case all by myself.

It occurs to me that jury deliberations are perhaps as close as you get to K12 group work in real adult life. They're a heterogeneous cross section of people, not grouped together by choice; their activity is unstructured, open-ended, and unsupervised; they are theoretically egalitarian (though certain personalities dominate); and all the work occurs in the group setting--no divvying up according to skill and going your separate ways.

But the thing is, juries have been around for many long centuries--way longer than K12 groups. And as to whether today's classroom groups will improve tomorrow's juries, that particular jury is still out.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Math problems of the week: ratios in 7th grade Connected Math vs. 6th grade Singapore Math

I. The final problem set in the "Comparing Ratios, Percents, and Fractions" investigation of Connected Math 2: Grade 7 (the book's only section on ratios):


II. The ratio problems in the "Review" section that follows the "Ratio" chapter in the 6th grade Singapore Math Primary Mathematics 6A Workbook:



III. Extra Credit

It has struck me recently that Reform Math provides little or no opportunities for students to show mathematical cleverness--and to be appreciated for being clever. Several of the above Singapore Math problems, on the other hand, do reward cleverness. What does this suggest about the different values of the Singaporean vs. the American education establishments?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Marginalizing left-brainers--in Germany

Back in the 16th century, Martin Luther was caned for using German at school. But this week my own beleaguered German is coming in handy. A friend of mine just sent me an a article from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that suggests that some of the problems our schools have with "left-brainers" aren't specific to America. Motivating this article, written by Jan Grossarth, is the publication of two books: "Jedes Kind ist hoch begabt“ ("Every Child is Highly Gifted") by the Göttinger neurologist Gerald Hüther, and "Die Durchschnittsfalle" ("The Case of the Average“) by the Vienna-based geneticist Markus Hengstschläger.

Grossarth asks:

Could it be that the smartest people are often in the back rows of their elementary and high school classes, their arms crossed, their heads hooded, somehow muddling through?
When it comes to kids with highly uneven skills, Grossarth argues, schools, increasingly obsessed with standardized tests, prefer to remediate weaknesses than to encourage strengths. Talent, meanwhile, is falsely equated with good grades and test scores. Sound familiar?

Grades and test scores, in turn, have a huge effect on future opportunities. On this note, Grossarth turns to Markus Hengstschläger, who now holds a position at the University of Vienna:
Today he is 44 years old and an internationally sought-after scientist in his field. He got his doctorate at 24 and a few years later became a professor. But school frustrated him. In scientific subjects he earned good grades; in German, English, French and history, rather bad ones. Only in grad school where he finally was able to really pursue the questions that really interested him, did he bloom. In Germany, where most academic placements are determined by the average scores on high school graduation exams, he probably would not have gotten a position.
Hengstschläger argues that we're losing millions of talented people--people on whom society's future largely depends.

While the situation in Germany sounds concerning, it may well be worse over here. As I've argued earlier, U.S. schools fall short both of remediating weaknesses and of fostering special talents.

Interestingly, Grossarth alludes to the term "autistic" as a colloquial description for the sort of child he is showcasing: the child who shows unusually original thought, great talent, and deep interests in highly specialized subjects. Here in America, not only is this sort of child likely to get low grades in subjects in which she has little interest. But, as I've discussed repeatedly, most recently here, he also stands a good chance of losing points in subjects that are supposed to focus on topics in which he does have great interest and talent, like science and math.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Tradtional classrooms in the 16th century

From James M. Kittleson's Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career, pp. 36-37:

[Martin Luther] looked back at his early education with little but disgust. Sixteenth-century schoolmasters by no means saw their task as drawing forth the best and most creative efforts from their charges. Luther was not quite five years old when he entered a school whose sole purpose was to force the students to learn to read and write Latin in preparation for their later studies. The methods used by his teachers were consistently condemned as “barbaric” by great educators such as Erasmus of Rotterdam. Coercion and ridicule were chief among their techniques. Any child caught speaking German was beaten with a rod. The one who had done least well in the morning was required to wear a dunce’s cap and was addressed as an ass all afternoon. Demerits were then added up for the week, and each student went home with one more caning to make the accounts balance.

Under these conditions, all that the children knew for certain was that they wanted to avoid the beatings and the dunce’s cap. But the curriculum was so dull that students found little incentive to meet even this modest objective. Music was the subject that Luther preferred, and in time he became a skilled performer and composer. But not even music was taught so that children might enjoy it, much less that they might express themselves. They were taught music because they had to sing in the church choirs.

Most of the time was spent on Latin, for which these poor beginners had only a primer and lists of words to memorize. To accomplish this task, they also learned by heart the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles’ Creed. When they had learned enough Latin, they were allowed to proceed to the second class. There they were introduced to the joys of memorizing declensions and conjugations. And the teacher’s rod followed them. Luther was caned 15 times in only one morning for not having mastered the tables of Latin grammar.
The 20-21st century education Refomation repeatedly characterizes traditional 20th century classrooms as being like these. Minus the beatings and canings, perhaps, but just as stifling of creativity and demeaning of self-esteem, with a deathly dull curriculum consisting of meaningless memorization and drill.

Perhaps they are beating a 16th century straw man?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Is lack of sociability the biggest problem for workplace collaboration?

Among today's education experts, the answer would appear to be a resounding "yes." This is, after all, one of their biggest reasons for having students spend so much time working in groups. Many of the comments on my Atlantic article, for example, claimed that the difficulty that group work requirements pose to socially awkward children are outweighed by how much they prepare all students for 21st century jobs.

As I've argued repeatedly, however, the social demands of K12 classroom collaborations differ so much from workplace collaborations that there's no reason to think that they prepare kids for jobs. Plenty of people who work in collaborative environments now did not attend highly social classrooms a generation ago. Do we have any evidence that today's professional collaborations are impaired by yesterday's more individualistic classrooms?

From what I know of workplace dynamics, the biggest impediments to successful collaborations aren't people who had insufficient experience with classroom groups or got bad grades for "cooperative learning." Rather, the biggest impediments come from three other sorts of people:

1. Those who, for all their high grade point averages and impressive performances in job interviews, turn out to lack the basic reading, writing, and analytical skills necessary to do their part.

2. Those who lack the work ethic to do their part.

3. Those whose superior social skills are accompanied by a drive to manipulate and backstab.

The irony is that current classroom practices, particularly the increased emphasis on group learning, enable all three types. The growing numbers of people in type 1, for example, are a byproduct of the failures of today's classrooms to provide sufficient instruction in core academic competencies.

The growing numbers in type 2 (overlapping with type 1) are a byproduct of two trends. The first is the tendency of today's in-class and homework assignments, for all the busywork they demand, to require little in the way of rigorous argumentation and problem solving--little of the kind of mental activity, in other words, that truly exercises the brain. The second trend is that of the group-based assignments in particular: those with slacker tendencies learn that they can often get away with free-riding off of their more capable or diligent classmates. And they spend at least 12 years honing this skill before entering the workforce.

Also enabled by classroom groups are those in type 3 (overlapping with 1 and 2). These sorts of people thrive in groups. In grade school, they earned top grades for sociability--and for charming their teachers. Under the radar, they also managed to make many of their peers miserable--and continue to do so at work.

When it comes to the interpersonal aspects of today's workplace collaborations, it is this highly social, sociopathic subtype that poses, by far, the biggest problems. Such people sour the workplace for countless fellow employees. Particularly if they feel insecure about their own professional skills, they often specifically target, and ultimately chase away, many of their more qualified co-workers.

If today's schools want to improve the social climate of tomorrow's workplaces, and, while, they're at it, that of their very own classrooms, they could start by ceasing to enable their most toxic, socially charming bullies.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Math problems of the week: Circles in 6th grade Everyday Math vs. Singapore Math

In honor of Pi day, I wanted to find some comparison problems involving circumferences and areas of circles. 6th grade Sinapore Math has a whole chapter devoted to "Circles," so I turned next to the 6th grade Everyday Math curriculum. To my surprise, there isn't a single problem in the entire curriculum involving circle area and circumference. Only within the sections on "data" does the circle make a brief cameo--but without its transcendental straight man:

I. The only circle-related problems in the 6th grade Everyday Math workbooks (Student Math Journal, Volume 1, pp. 41-42; p. 190):





II. The final problem set in the Circles chapter in the Singpoare Math Primary Mathematics 6B Workbook (pp. 36-37):



III. Extra Credit

Is it right to prefer "data" to Pi?

Should circles in 6th grade be restricted to straightforward, single-step Percent Circle and protractor problems?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Hiding the Achievement Gap: how current trends backfire

In a recent post, I wrote about how current trends in education aimed at narrowing the achievement gap actually end up widening it. These trends include Reform Math; making all kids do work at their age-based grade levels; "accommodating" disabilities rather than remediating them; and multiple instructional options aimed at different talents/"learning styles."

At the extreme, for example,  you might have a 9th grader with a serious reading comprehension deficit "learning" Romeo and Juliet (because the curriculum says all 9th graders should do Shakespeare) by reading simplified Shakespeare, watching West Side Story, and then creating a diorama of the Balcony Scene. What this child needs is remedial reading instruction with a text that is not at his age-based grade level but at his aptitude-based grade level. Without this, his reading level will stay where it is and he won't stand a chance of ever grasping adult-level texts, let alone Shakespeare.

Why are today's education experts promoting such obviously counterproductive strategies in the name of Narrowing the Gap? Is it because such strategies make it look as if the gap is narrowing? By providing a way for a child to "do" Shakespeare that bypasses the actual challenges, you can take someone who once would have had a transcript marred either by English classes marked as remedial, or by very low grades in college-prep English, and give him an A in Honors English.

Furthermore, as Anonymous writes on my first post on the achievement gap, the more the assessment rubric allows subjective judgment (e.g., how "creative" your diorama was, or how "deeply" you explained your correct or incorrect answer), the more latitude the teacher has to assess away any achievement gap in her classroom. (A more formal tactic is grade compression).

So you can disappear the K12 report card gap. And, using similar tactics, you can disappear the state achievement test gap: keep dumbing down the tests and softening their assessment criteria.

But there are still a few manifestations of the achievement gap that schools can't sweep under the carpet:

1. The achievement gap in independent standardized tests like the SAT and ACT.
2. The achievement gap in colleges, where those who can't handle the traditional college curricula either fail out or lose their time and money to remedial/dumbed down classes.
3. The subsequent gap in earnings (and employment) that results, in large part, from the cumulative effects of all this educational malpractice.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Responses to comments on "Are Grading Trends Hurting Socially Akward Kids"

A rather spirited discussion has ensued at TheAtlantic.com regarding various issues raised by my article.

Some people objected to my claim that many people with formal or informal diagnoses of Asperger's Syndrome are worse off now than in more traditional classrooms. They pointed out that not all Aspies are academically gifted and that many depend on accommodations that didn't exist a generation ago.

They are correct. The IDEA, the current basis for educating and accommodating special needs students, dates only to 1990. And Asperger's Syndrome is a broad and populous category that includes many kids who do need academic supports. But it also includes many kids who are highly skilled academically and whose main deficits are social, and it was this group--as well as other, unclassified, socially awkward kids--that "Are Grading Trends Hurting Socially Akward Kids" is about.

A different angle on the Asperger's label came from other readers, who proposed that appropriate IEPs would exempt students from the sorts of social requirements I discuss in my article. But many socially awkward children don't have IEPs. Nor do IEPs guarantee exemptions from all problematic requirements. The entire IEP team--teachers and parents alike--have to agree, and, as the comments at TheAlantic makes clear, many teachers (and even some parents!) don't think their autistic spectrum kids should be exempted from social requirements.

These people argue that grades that reflect social skills help prepare students for the real world. Like it or not, the real world favors people with social skills. Of course, it also favors people who are physically attractive, so, by this argument, teachers might also downgrade kids for looks.

The reply, of course, is that kids are more able to improve their social skills than their physical appearances. Wouldn't points off for deficient eye contact and an unengaging presentation style prod students into self-betterment? Perhaps this works for some kids, but where the most socially anxious or clueless are concerned, such negative incentives can backfire. As I argue in my article, what these kids need are trained social skills therapists who teach social skills explicitly: specialists that most schools (for all their speech and occupational therapists) quite simply don't have on staff.

Some commenters objected to my related claim that:

The kinds of jobs that autistic students aspire to -- for example, computer programming, engineering, writing, and the visual arts -- tend not to involve the sorts of group dynamics that occur in K-12 classrooms.
They point out that today even programming jobs require large amounts of collaboration and interaction. That's true, but, as I've argued here and in my book, the social demands of such collaborations differ in several key ways from those of groups in K-12 classrooms. It simply isn't the case that spending many hours in classroom groups prepares students for professional collaborations.

Other commenters objected to my suggestion that kids shouldn't be downgraded for not explaining their answers to math problems. Surely if you know what you're doing you can explain your steps. But it's important to distinguish between explaining your answers and showing your work. Today's students are expected to explain their answers to simple problems that many can do in their heads in a single step--as opposed to showing their work in complex, multi-step problems where there actually is work to show.

Other commenters found my claims alarmist. Surely I cherry-picked the worst examples, and even though only 35% of the points on the science presentation rubric come from content, it is, after all, a science presentation rubric. One commenter calculated that only 2-3% would be taken off of a student's grade for deficient social skills. But even if this is a case, multiply that 2-3% by the hundreds of thousands of socially awkward kids out there, and you get a significant number of cases where this makes the difference between an A- and a B+. When selective magnet high schools or colleges see a "B+" in chemistry on an applicant's transcript, how many will stop and ask whether it reflects social awkwardness rather than deficient effort or skill in chemistry? Factor in all the other grade-lowering trends I discuss in the article (presentation skills are just one example), and the result, in today's highly competitive high school and college admissions processes, is a significant impairment of the future opportunities of many socially awkward students.

Finally, as for cherry picking, I didn't get my examples from a sweeping search through the educational orchard. The science rubric is the first of many that come up on Google; the social studies assignment came home in one of my kids' backpacks.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Math problems of the week: factoring in UCMP vs. 1900s algebra

I. The final page of factoring problems in the University of Chicago Math Project Algebra textbook (Chapter 12 of 13 chapters) [click to enlarge]:



II. The final page of factoring problems in Wentworth's New School Algebra textbook (Chapter 7 of 17 chapters) [click to enlarge]:


III. Extra Credit

What do the University of Chicago Math Project students miss out on by not having problems as challenging as problem #121 above?

What did Wentworth's students miss out on by not having SPUR Objectives, where, once again:

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Monday, March 4, 2013

Letter from Huck: The Trombonist in the Classroom and a Paper I’ll Probably Never Write

Out in Left Field proudly presents the twelth in a series of letters by an aspiring math teacher formerly known as "John Dewey." All personal and place names have been changed to protect privacy.


In my substitute teaching I often see students who remind me of my former students during my student teaching days. During a recent sub assignment, after I gave the students their assignment, one chubby boy asked me if they could work with partners.“Yes,” I replied.
“Ooh! ‘Partner’ is a dirty word!” he said.
I immediately thought of Angel, a chubby 7th grade boy in my honors pre-algebra. While the purveyors of reform math and trendy methods for teaching math always talk about getting students to use their innate abilities in math to make “connections” between aspects of math, they fail to account for the innate genius that middle schoolers possess in making sexual connections. I saw this while finishing a lesson on negative and zero exponents for the honors class. I had started to say “I realize that these concepts are confusing and it’s hard to wrap your head around them, but…” That was as far as I got. I heard a tittering and suppressed giggles, so I went on to the next subject. Whenever I would turn to write something on the white board the giggling would get louder. The giggling continued, and at one point I saw that Angel had his head down on the desk, convulsing so hard with laughter that I thought he was crying. I stared at him to see what was wrong. He realized I was looking at him, and he stopped.
I didn’t figure it out until later when I was driving home, which is when many things tend to hit me. “Oh, ‘Wrap your head around it!’ I get it!” I said to myself.
I can’t blame them for laughing. I recall something similar happening during a rehearsal when I was in the Michigan Marching Band. We were rehearsing the week’s pre-game and half-time show numbers indoors. The legendary William D. Revelli was conducting; he was a perfectionist and something was not right among the trumpets. He had them play a passage over and over while the rest of the Band sat, not playing.  He suddenly addressed us non-players and said “Boys, when you’re not playing your instruments you can still be practicing by fingering your parts.” I remember the great difficulty we had stifling our laughter.  In fact, to this day, if I need to smile for a photo, I will recall that incident—to good effect, apparently since people generally remark on the nice smile I have in the photo.
Angel, the perpetrator of many antics in the honors pre-algebra class, was in the school’s band.  I found out one day he played the trombone, which delighted me, because my experience with trombone players through the years is that they tend to be troublemakers. I cling to a theory that cannot be proven, that there are personality traits associated with the instruments people choose, and so I have found that trombone players are a loud, jolly, mischievous bunch who mean well.  They tend to contribute humor into the class, as well as a sober grounding in reality. 
I recall one day when I was teaching a unit on exponentials. This was during the two-week absence of my supervising teacher, Tina, after her father had passed away. I was going over common errors that students make when doing problems like 72 * 73—like writing the answer as 495, and representing 76/74 as 12.  “What is 76/74?” I asked.  They answered “7 squared”.  “That’s right,” I said. “So why did so many of you on the last test answer the question as 12?” I asked, writing that on the board. 
A few minutes later, I was going around the class monitoring their in-class assignment. I saw that Angel had made this same mistake. “Angel, why did you do that? Didn’t you hear me explain that the base remains the same when you divide powers?”
I was standing behind him and he tilted his chubby head back and looked up at me. “But that’s what you had written on the board,” he said, and pointed to the example of the mistake that I had neglected to erase. 
I relayed this tale to Tina sometime later after she returned, in one of our moments of catching her up to what had gone on in class. “Not a good idea to show students how to do something wrong,” she said.  “You’ll have kids like Angel who only half listen and they’ll think the wrong way you wrote on the board is the right way.” I’ve half-followed this advice. I do think it’s sometimes valuable to highlight something students are doing wrong, if many of them are doing it.  But if I illustrate the mistake on the board, I erase it as soon as I’m done talking about it.
I don’t know that Angel should have been placed in the honors class, but then again, there were so many factors that affected the students’ performance. While some people I’ve met would be quick to classify him as being of “low cognitive ability,” I find it hard to make such identifications quickly. I recall two girls who were doing poorly in the pre-algebra class—one was in honors, and the other in the non-honors class. The teacher held conferences with the girls’ mothers, both of whom worked in the strawberry fields. There were problems at home that got sorted out and the girls’ performance soared—I couldn’t believe they were the same people. I knew it was a respite—home life issues rarely are permanently solved.
Towards the end of the semester, it was nearing the date of the school’s band concert. A few minutes before class started, Angel approached me for help tying a necktie that he had to wear for the concert. “I’ll give it a try; I’m not used to tying it on someone else.”  I got it to loop correctly and slide up and down, though the narrow part was way too short. “The length doesn’t look right, I’m afraid,” I said.
 “Oh, this’ll be fine,” he said, delighted.  He removed the tie keeping the knot intact so he had a pre-tied tie. 
“Ask your father if he can adjust it for you,” I said.
“My father doesn’t wear ties,” he said.
I know I lack experience and am hopelessly naïve, but I hope I don’t end up hung up on IQ’s and other measures of cognitive ability. Even bright (high IQ) kids have to get help at home to succeed.  Maybe poor prior math instruction and disruptive family life play a role. Maybe cultural factors play a role.  Maybe the cognitive power of making sexual connections is a surrogate for IQ.  Maybe I’ll write a paper about it someday.  Believe me, I’ve read far worse.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Autism Diaries XLIV: Grammar tracking

An excerpt from one of my recent exchanges with J:

J: "The stronger the bonds, the higher the melting point."
Me: "What lesson is that from?"

J: "Level III, Lesson 23."
No, I wasn't asking him which chemistry lesson he'd learned this content knowledge from. Instead, I was asking him which GrammarTrainer lesson he'd learned this grammatical structure from. And he still knew not only that that was what I was asking him, but also what the correct answer was.

Just about 10 years ago, J became the first student to use my GrammarTrainer software. In fact, he was both its raison d'être and its guinea pig, going through it while it was still a work in progress, zealously beta-testing it for bugs. Often he'd be just a lesson or two behind me as I rushed to alpha test each new lesson, hoping to preclude any pauses in instruction. The program--if I do say so myself--was doing such a good job expanding J's comprehension and his clarity of expression that I wanted him to get through all the syntactic phenomena of English as expeditiously as possible.

By the time J was midway through Level III, he was remembering more and more consistently to add the "s" sound to present tense verbs with third personal singular subjects ("J likes fans on"; "Mommy wants them off")--which happens to be one of the more common grammatical challenges for a significant subsector of the autistic population. He was also able to understand and use the passive voice, and to invert questions with the correct auxiliaries ("Where did you put the remote?"). But he was still garbling more complex structures, and one that particularly cried out for remediation was "I am easy to do math."

What J meant to say, of course, was "Math is easy for me to do." And simple though it looks, this sentence involves a somewhat complex process that linguists call "Tough Movement": a transformation that derives it from the syntactically more basic "Doing math is easy for me." Tough Movement applies to the small but frequently-used set of adjectives and adjectival phrases that express degrees of difficulty--like "easy," "hard," and ... "tough." GrammarTrainer needed a lesson on Tough Movement!

While J finished up the current lesson, I programmed in Tough Movement. And when J typed in "The boy is easy to do math," this is what he saw:


He started laughing. For the first time, it really hit him what was going on. GrammarTrainer lessons were a direct response to his real-life grammar errors! Always thrilled with provoking a predictable response, he reveled in this revelation.

From then on, whenever J contemplated the ungrammaticality of sentences like "I am easy to do math," he'd ask me, "Is that why you made Lesson 23 in Level III?"

And even today, when he's moved far beyond the syntactic phenomena of English all the way to Honors Chemistry, he can still map his acquisition of particular phenomena to specific lessons of GrammarTrainer, remembering details about the program that I myself can no longer spontaneously recall.

For example: