Sunday, November 29, 2015

Why not reduce stress without wasting time?

In my recent post questioning whether "Social Emotional Learning" programs reduced stress, I noted how:

When it comes to college-level anxiety, one source that remains under-appreciated is the increasingly poor academic preparation kids get in high school.
Of course, some high schools that do offer solid academic preparation for college--particularly selective high schools, or high schools with AP or IB classes. In those cases, stress begins earlier. The culprit here is the increasingly poor academic preparation kids get in middle school. Parents on lists for parents of high-achieving students frequently report on how their middle school kids are bored out of their minds, and then, if lucky enough to attend a rigorous program in high school, start out quite stressed out by all the hard work, even if, in the end, they ultimately get used to it, start liking school, develop good study habits, and end up less stressed out than they were back in middle school.

Middle school can also be stressful for parents. This comes largely from all the projects and busy work that dominate many of the otherwise more functional middle schools. The big one in this neck of the woods is the Science Fair Project--the source of many a weekend lost to sweat and tears--particularly since the project grade, a big part of the science grade, could be a determining factor in whether your kid gets into one of the few good high schools. Parents not only have to ferry their kids around to get supplies, but also, somehow, get their kids to stay organized and put all the necessary effort into this and other multi-step assignments. Failing that, some parents end up doing some of the busy work themselves.

Why not instead try to make middle school less stressful and more challenging? This opens up a whole new source of parental stress. I've blogged earlier about the extreme efforts that one parent had to make on behalf of her son. Here's another report from another parent:
It took our group of about 6-10 dedicated parents many meetings with many folks to make changes in instruction. The principal was really resistant to changing things and related it back to the "achievement gap." And the changes would "stick" so to speak only as long as we were persistent in pushing the school to maintain a certain level of rigor. If we went a few months thinking everything was fine and dandy, we'd be surprised by a string of "busy work" activities or books well below our kids' reading abilities being taught in English. And we'd reorganize, start over, push more. It's exhausting and stressful, but we all felt our kids' education was worth it and none of us had the resources to bag out and go to private schools.
Somehow I don't think Social Emotional Learning classes are going to fix any of this.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Math problem of the week: Common Core-inspired high school math problem

A problem from the Common Core-inspired PARCC exam, which a commenter on Dan Meyer's blog felt was comparable to the sample math problems on the high school exam in Finland that I blogged about earlier:

Extra Credit:

Discuss the relative importance of labels vs. concepts in this problem.

Discuss the ratio of math skills vs. reading comprehension skills and common sense.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Not privileging the Symbol

"We don't want to privilege the word."

That was the justification that the director of a college writing program gave to a friend of mine for why he should allow his students the option to draw a picture rather than write an essay. Even back then, over two decades ago, our education experts were being careful not to privilege symbols.

But it has only recently occurred to me how this concern is playing out in today's Reform Math. Along with group work, group discovery, multiple solutions, and, of course, explaining answers to easy problems, there's doing math visually. This explains:

1. The large percentage of elementary school math problems today that involve classifying shapes.

2. The large percentage of K12 math problems that now involve reading charts and graphs.

3. The replacement of geometry proofs by visual "demonstrations," complete with spatial "translations," "reflections," and "dilations."

4. The growing reliance on graphical representations to solve algebra problems.

We see 4 at play, for example, in Brett Gilland's comment about the PARCC problem on my last Problems of the Week post. My inclination was to answer the question algebraically rather than appealing to geometric intuition. But, superficially, the problem really begs to be solved graphically, given how it's spelled. Consider the specific letters used to represent variables in the equation g(x) = mx + b. Because "m" is conventionally used to represent slop and "b," to represent the y intercept, many students will instantly recognize this as an easily graph-able line. The algebraic solution, via the Quadratic Formula, would prefer a different spelling: the standard spelling of polynomials (ax2 + bx + c), has the letter b representing the co-efficient of x rather than the constant.

While the specific spelling details of symbolic representations are superficial, symbolic representations themselves are anything but. They are what allow you to abstract away from two-dimensional space towards that which is increasingly difficult to represent graphically. Functions in 3-d are already tough; what about 4-d spacetime, or n-dimension space more generally? And consider other branches of mathematics like number theory and logic. Again, visual diagrams can represent the simple stuff (e.g., Venn diagrams for simple logical relations like if, only if, iff; or the number lines for simple numerical relations). But they do not take you very far at all. That's why, if you take a look at a math article, or even a physics article, you generally find many, many more lines of symbolic expressions than you find shapes, graphs, and diagrams.

But today's math teaching experts think otherwise. Their assumption seems to be that shapes, graphs, and diagrams are what make math meaningful, and that everything else is mere symbols. Thus, symbolic manipulation must be as mindless as "mere calculation."

The upshot is that what mathematicians and physicists use as tools for powerful abstractions are viewed by others as being as superficial as the decision to use the letter "m" to represent a slope and the letter "b" to represent an intercept.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Yet another way to bore our students and stress them out

While catching up with this past week's New York Times Sunday Review, I was thinking of something Paul Bruno wrote on my last post:

If only fans of reform math were this concerned with rigorous controls and falsification exercises when considering their preferred education research.
If only. Especially when it comes to practices that potentially waste large amounts of student time. (People seem in general to worry a lot more about policies that waste money than they do about policies that waste time--particularly other people's time, and most especially other people's children's time).

Accordingly, many of today's instructional practices would seem to do just that. One potential time-waster that's not getting nearly the scrutiny it should, besides making students explain their answers to easy math problems, is so-called "social and emotional learning." According to an article by Julie Scelfo in last week's Week in Review article, entitled Teaching Peace in Elementary School:
In many communities, elementary teachers, guidance counselors and administrators are embracing what is known as social and emotional learning, or S.E.L., a process through which people become more aware of their feelings and learn to relate more peacefully to others.  
Feeling left out? Angry at your mom? Embarrassed to speak out loud during class? Proponents of S.E.L. say these feelings aren’t insignificant issues to be ignored in favor of the three R’s. Unless emotions are properly dealt with, they believe, children won’t be able to reach their full academic potential.
S.E.L., sometimes called character education, embraces not just the golden rule but the idea that everyone experiences a range of positive and negative feelings. It also gives children tools to slow down and think when facing conflicts, and teaches them to foster empathy and show kindness, introducing the concept of shared responsibility for a group’s well-being.
This trend has been going strong at least since the 1990s, albeit under a variety of different acronyms (from PATHs to RULER). The general justification, in part, is stress among students, which, while invariably unprecedented, has ever-changing causes. The stressors, this time around, are:
not only the inherent difficulty of growing up, but also an increasingly fraught testing environment, a lower tolerance for physical acting out and the pervasive threat of violence. (President Obama last year characterized school shootings as “becoming the norm.”) Poverty and income inequality, too, create onerous emotional conditions for many children.
Of course, poverty and income gaps predate public schools. School shootings are an entirely different matter, and I would not presume to know the general psychological effect their incidence, and publicity, has had on today's school children. As for the other two factors, I'll get back to those later.

First let's look ask what scientific basis there is for any of this. As Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, explains:
The neural pathways in the brain that deal with stress are the same ones that are used for learning,
Right: stress is a form of learning. But how does this get us to school-based S.E.L.s? The best I can come up with is this: neural pathways go with stress and stress goes with learning and learning goes with classrooms, so learning to de-stress goes with classrooms. But this kind of "jerk is a tug and a tug is a boat and a boat floats on water and water is nature and nature is beautiful" argument can take us pretty much anywhere we want.

Author Julie Scelfo, however, also cites studies, in particular a meta-analysis of many studies:
Studies have found that promoting emotional and social skills correlates with improved outcomes in students’ lives. A 2011 analysis of 213 S.E.L. programs involving 270,034 kindergarten through high school students published in the journal Child Development found that the participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes and behavior compared with a control group, as well as an 11-point gain in academic achievement percentiles.
However, as the meta-study itself notes in its conclusion:
only 16% of the studies collected information on academic achievement at post, and more follow-up investigations are needed to confirm the durability of program impact.
Scelfo cites a second study in which:
researchers from Penn State and Duke looked at 753 adults who had been evaluated for social competency nearly 20 years earlier while in kindergarten: Scores for sharing, cooperating and helping other children nearly always predicted whether a person graduated from high school on time, earned a college degree, had full-time employment, lived in public housing, received public assistance or had been arrested or held in juvenile detention.
Moreover, positive relationships, emotional competency and resilience have also been widely identified as helping to prevent mental illness.
But that's relevant only if S.E.L. programs really do raise social competency scores long term. After all, it's not exactly headline news that social competence predicts success in the classroom, success on the job, and success in staying out of trouble. In some cases, regardless of social competency, S.E.L. programs might have the opposite effect, stressing kids out more by forcing them to air their emotions in class and engage in role-playing activities with arbitrarily chosen peers.

Here's the one specific S.E.L. moment described in the article:
At P.S. 130 in Brooklyn, where most students qualify for free lunch, a class of third graders recently sat in a circle and brainstormed, for the second day in a row, about steps they could take to prevent an aggressive boy in another class from causing problems during lunch and recess: A 9-year-old girl said she “felt scared” when the boy chased and grabbed her; Leo, an 8-year-old with neon orange sneakers, described, with agitation, how the boy sat down, uninvited, at his table and caused so much commotion that it drew sanctions from a cafeteria aide.
“How does he really bother you?” a girl in a pink sweatshirt asked, seeking clarification, as she’d been taught.
“Because,” Leo responded, his voice swelling with indignation, “it took 10 minutes from recess!”
It's easy to talk about a kid behind his back; whether and how the class that actually has the offending boy in it has gone about handling him is left unclear. As for taking time away from recess, one has to wonder what these S.E.L.s activities are taking time away from.

Scelfo does acknowledge concerns about the time taken from academics. She cites Robert Pondiscio in particular, whom she characterizes as "a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education policy group in Washington." (I know Robert Pondiscio and wouldn't call him "right-leaning;" since no one in the article is identified as left-leaning, it's hard to guess Scelfo's reference point.) But, no matter: to Pondiscio and his kind Scelfo has this to say:
Skeptics of using school time to tend to emotions might consider visiting P.S. 130, where the hallway outside a third-grade classroom is decorated with drawings made by students showing their aspirations for the current school year.
One child hopes “to make new friends.” Another wants to “be nice and help.”
And as for Leo, who is frustrated about losing 10 minutes of recess?
Underneath a watercolor self-portrait, in which his body is painted orange, he wrote: “My hope for myself this year is to get better at math.” If S.E.L. strategies work, he will be better equipped to reach that goal.
And here Scelfo ends her piece, apparently convinced she's addressed Pondiscio's objections. Which were:
It’s easy to recognize the importance of S.E.L. skills. It’s much harder to identify and implement curricular interventions that have a measurable effect on them. Thus ‘what works’ tends to be defined as ‘what I like’ or ‘what I believe works.
Let's return, now, to the two other factors that Scelfo cites as stressing kids out these days: "an increasingly fraught testing environment" and "a lower tolerance for physical acting out." Instead of potentially wasting kids time with S.E.Ls classes, let's give them back the time they're wasting on standardized tests, and let's give them back their time for physically acting out, which used to be called recess. And, in particular, let's stop suspending everyone's recess whenever some kids get physical.

For a final alternative to S.E.L.-based stress reduction, let's return to Scelfo's opening paragraph:
For years, there has been a steady stream of headlines about the soaring mental health needs of college students and their struggles with anxiety and lack of resilience. Now, a growing number of educators are trying to bolster emotional competency not on college campuses, but where they believe it will have the greatest impact: in elementary schools.
When it comes to college-level anxiety, one source that remains under-appreciated is the increasingly poor academic preparation kids get in high school. And here we come full circle. For one big reason why kids are increasingly ill-prepared academically is because they are wasting their time in the service of the latest education fads, from explaining their answers to easy math problems to working through emotional issues in S.E.L. sessions.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Explaining answers to easy problems vs. doing mathematically challenging problems

A comment I posted on Barry and my Atlantic article engendered a second thread on Dan Meyer’s blog when I reposted it there. What I wrote, in part, was:

The American approach is to build conceptual understanding through time-consuming student-centered discovery of multiple solutions and explanations of relatively simple problems. An internationally more successful approach is to build conceptual understanding through teacher-directed instruction and individualized practice in challenging math problems.
I got a little flack for my sweeping statement about an “American approach” so I followed up with:
I should clarify what I mean by “American approach”: the approach inspired by national movements like the Common Core and the NCTM standards.
The various objections fell into several categories:

1. The pedagogy I’m calling “American” is rare throughout the U.S.: most classrooms still follow a traditional model.

But even if most students are still sitting in rows with the teacher in front, more and more are using Reform Math textbooks like Everyday Math and Investigations, which solicit multiple solutions and verbal explanations for relatively simple math problems. Even if teachers matter more than textbooks, textbooks can place a ceiling on how challenging the material is. That's why traditional texts that date back to the 1960s and earlier are so much better than today's textbooks: they don't place such a low a ceiling on mathematical challenge. Instead they provide math-expanding opportunities for those who can handle them.

2. International comparisons based on test scores are unfair because Europe is “white” and Chinese students cheat. (Yes, one commenter actually said this, repeatedly).

But being white doesn’t make you good at math; China is only one of several Asian countries I discuss; and the many Chinese (and other Asian) nationals who disproportionately populate the top PhD programs and math-intensive careers here in the U.S. probably didn’t get where they are by cheating on math tests.

3. International comparisons based on performance on the PISA test are unfair because other countries track out their lowest performing students prior to age 15-16, the age range of students taking the PISA.

I’d be curious to see statistics on how large this effect is; I’ve looked around a bit and found nothing. Presumably our scores, too, are affected by dropouts and no-shows.

4. International comparisons based on the relative mathematical difficulty of high school exit exams are unfair because these don’t tell us how most students actually did on the various problems.

I’d argue that the predominance on some of these exams of much more challenging problems than American high school students ever see on any standardized test or graduation test tells us something about what kinds of mathematical opportunities students from other countries are getting that their American counterparts may not be.

5. In addition to international comparisons being unfair, a comparison within a province of one country of student performance before and after a student-centered discovery-oriented curriculum was introduced is also unfair. Why? Because it ignores what was going on concurrently in the rest of the country at large.

Then what kind of comparison is fair?

6. The Finnish exam and the Chinese Gao Kao are no more difficult than our Common Core-inspired exams.

My impression is that people who believe this haven’t looked closely at the mathematical demands of these tests, and/or believe that applying math to real-world situations and “proving” things using graphs (common in America's Reform Math and Common Core-inspired exams) to be of a mathematical challenge equal to or greater than the “mere” manipulation of abstract symbols. People with this impression should take a look at the research produced by professional mathematicians and check out the ratio of graphs and “real-world” situations to sequences of abstract symbols.

7. Students at an elite private high school do really well with a discovery-based curriculum.

If I were forced to enact a student-group-centered, discovery-based curriculum somewhere, I’d do it at a highly selective high school whose students were admitted, in part, based on their aptitude for (and therefore their solid foundational knowledge in) math. Such students stand the greatest chance of learning additional math independently, and from one another, and without too much loss in efficiency compared to what’s possible in more teacher-directed, individualized-problem-solving classrooms.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Math problems of the week: Finnish vs. Common-Core inspire exams

1. A problem from the Common Core-inspired PARCC exam, which a commenter on Dan Meyer's blog thought I would particularly like, and felt was comparable to the sample problems on the high school exam in Finland that I blogged about earlier:

2. The Finnish problems I blogged about earlier:

1 c. Simplify the expression (a2-b2)/(a - b) + (a2-b2)/(a + b) with a not equal to b or –b.

5. A circle is tangent to the line 3x-4y = 0 at the point (8, 6), and it touches the positive x-axis. Define the circle center and radius.

6. Let a1…an be real numbers. What value of the variable x make the sum (x + a1)2 + (x + a2)2 + ….+ (x + an)n as small as possible?

9. The plane 9 + x + 2y + 3z = 6 intersects the positive coordinate axis at the points A, B and C.
a) Determine the volume of a tetrahedron whose vertices are at the origin O and the points A, B and C.
b) Determine the area of the triangle ABC.

13. Let us consider positive integers n and k for which n + (n +1) + (n + 2) + + (n + k) = 1007
a) Prove that these numbers n and k satisfy the equation (k +1)(2n + k) = 2014.

III. Extra Credit

1. Consider what is involved in solving the PARCC problem (recognizing that it's a quadratic; seeing what the a, b, and c coefficients of the standard form of the quadratic equation correspond to here, and seeing that 4ac must be positive). Compare these recognitions, apparent with minimal symbol manipulations, with what's involved in solving the Finnish problems.

2. Some problems can appear mathematically abstract without involving much math. Discuss.

3. About Finnish problem 13, the commenter on Dan Meyer's blog writes:
Problem 13 is a variation on the proof for the sum of an arithmetic sequence. Algebra 1 in the CCSS, btw. We don’t require a proof, but if we were going to require one, that would be one of the easiest to pick. And reform mathematics programs will typically explore that proof (geometrically, and then with algebraic symbols to formalise). Traditional American textbooks just give the formula as something to memorize because, get this, accurate procedures without understanding are considered sufficient.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Explaining your math: highly controversial! Part II

In my last post, I categorized the critical comments on Barry and my Atlantic article into 7 categories. A similar, though generally more sophisticated set of critical comments appeared on Dan Meyer’s blog.

Again, there were those who took issue with our specific examples of expected explanations. They agreed that requiring such explanations isn't reasonable, that teachers should be flexible, and that explanations could be oral and informal. But they also argued that explanations in general are a good idea. And they are. But explanations are most effective and efficient when solicited in a teacher-centered discussion, or when used to help a student understand why he or she got a particular answer wrong.

There were those (including Dan) who conflated explaining answers and thought processes verbally and diagrammatically with doing math proofs (the latter is something we think there should actually be more of).

And there were those who conflated explaining answers and thought processes verbally and diagrammatically with showing work. Others seemed to think that the kind of work displays Barry and I were endorsing was work consisting only of mathematical symbols. But there are plenty of words that go into work-showing (and proofs), including reasons (“given"; “side-angle-side"; “without loss of generality”) and units (“miles per hour”; "liters of water loss per minute"; “pounds of salt per pounds of total mixture”).

There were those who cited student testimonials about how producing explanations enhanced learning. Many students would beg to differ, though not everyone wants to listen to them.

In the "communication skills necessary for math-related professions" category, there were those who specifically discussed how mathematicians themselves

use words in describing their discoveries all the time – and have for a long time. That’s why some doctorates in mathematics require a foreign language so that the candidate can read the mathematicians’ writings in the original language.
The question, however, is whether requiring the kinds of verbal and diagrammatic explanations we critique in our article will help prepare future mathematicians to communicate with other mathematicians. The mathematicians I’ve talked to are skeptical. A related question: are mathematicians who learned math in pre-answer-explaining times deficient in their communication skills?

True, teachers, including mathematicians who teach other mathematicians what they have discovered, should be able to explain the math in question verbally and diagrammatically, as needed. But that doesn’t justify requiring K12 students to provide such explanations in their assignments. Teacher prep programs exist for a reason. And are teachers who learned K12 math in pre-answer-explaining times worse at teaching math concepts than their contemporary counterparts?

In addition, there were those (including Dan) who argued that a student with correct but unexplained answers, even my hypothetical student who “progresses through math with correct but unexplained answers—from multi-digit arithmetic through to multi-variable calculus”—still might not understand the underlying math. My response is twofold.  One: this ultimately depends on what we mean by “understanding,” and matters only if the student’s understanding is insufficient preparation for the next level of math. Two: the problem would be remedied by assigning more conceptually challenging math problems--of the sort that simply can’t be solved if you lack the requisite depth of understanding. Such problems do exist: indeed, if they didn't, none of this would matter.

Perhaps the most-discussed argument was that of the supposed meta-cognitive benefits of explaining your answer (and of students listening to each other explain their answers), and, relatedly, of the purported need for teachers to understand what is going on in students' heads at a level of depth for which mere answers and work-showing are insufficient. One commenter simply writes “Metacognition! I can’t imagine anyone not seeing the value of that, but you never know."

In support of meta-cognition, some cited students who can crunch numbers or apply formulas but lack conceptual understanding. I’d say these students simply need practice with problems that require more conceptual understanding than mere “number crunching” and “formula applying” assignments do. In general, assigning more conceptually challenging math problems is a much better, and more efficient, way to help students develop conceptual understanding (and, as one commenter put it, to “ferret out” those “math zombies”) than bogging them down with verbal and diagrammatic explanations to problems that aren’t conceptually challenging.

One person cited kids who do problems incorrectly, but, when explaining them, realize their mistakes. That’s a benefit that can be achieved simply by soliciting explanations specifically for wrongly-answered problems for which an explanation is likely to lead to this sort of realization.

In short, my answer is more teacher-led discussion of underlying concepts, with teachers calling on students, as appropriate, to develop concepts and explanations (for which Japanese classrooms as described in this discussion are a good model); and more individualized practice with conceptually challenging math problems.

A comment I made to this this effect on Dan's blog led to a whole new thread of comments, which I will digest in my next post.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Explaining Your Math: highly controversial!

There are now over 450 comments on Barry Garelick and my article in the online Atlantic, Explaining Your Math: Unnecessary at Best, Encumbering at Worst.

Apparently, this is a rather controversial topic. Critical comments appear to boil down to 7 categories:

--What the Common Core actually says: Some people stated that there’s nothing in the Common Core itself that requires students to explain answers and thought processes verbally and diagrammatically. (We noted that there are parts of the Common Core that nonetheless can be, and are being, interpreted in this way).

--Our specific examples: Some claimed that examples we used to illustrate work showing aren’t representative of what’s generally going on, and that good teachers would be more flexible and reasonable about what constitutes adequate explanations. (That would be nice, if so.)

--Who is actually affected: Some claimed that our objections apply only to very small subsets of kids. (We pointed out that these practices are problematic for all students, and in particular for second language learners and children with language impairments).

--The virtues of showing your work: Some people conflated showing work (which we agree is reasonable wherever there’s work to show) with explaining answers and thought processes verbally and diagrammatically.

--The virtues of doing math proofs: Some people conflated doing math proofs (which we agree there should be more of in high school math) with explaining answers and thought processes verbally and diagrammatically. (We pointed out that there is actually relatively little emphasis on mathematic proofs in both the various Common Core-inspired curricula and tests).

--Communication skills necessary for math-related professions: Some people believe that having students provide the sorts of verbal and diagrammatic explanations we critique in our article will help prepare future engineers and scientists for the communicative demands of their jobs. (The question then is whether engineers and scientists who learned math in pre-answer-explaining times are deficient in their communication skills compared with their more contemporary counterparts.)

--Counter-exemplary anecdotes: Some people described how well explaining answers and diagramming thought processes work for their students or kids.

--Faith: Some people are sure that meta-cognitive processes are the best way to develop conceptual understanding. (We would say that a better way is to emulate the countries that outcompete us in math, giving kids more direct instruction and individualized practice in conceptually challenging math problems).

Monday, November 9, 2015

Home schooling update: fall semester of 9th grade

Counterbalancing the difficulty getting J what he needs in college is the ease of getting H what she needs in home school. Here's the latest:

In Literature, we continue with Bullfinch's The Age of Fable and are finishing up To Kill a Mockingbird (with Atticus 2.0 having just made powerful closing arguments in defense of Tom Robinson). We just finished up Frankenstein and the Book of Judith and have moved on to Dracula and the Book of Esther. She's especially enjoying Jane Eyre.

In history she continues with Outlines of European History, having just completed several chapters on the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. (And I'm appreciating, for the first time, just how central all this tumult was to the Europe's transition from feudalism to nationalism.) She's also reading a Glencoe American History text in which she is about 70 years ahead of Napoleon.

In math she continues her alternation of Weeks &Adkins Geometry (my husband's high school text) and A Second Course in Algebra (my mother's high school text). She especially enjoys geometry proofs (even though some education gurus say she's supposed to hate them).

In science she's working her way through a great biology text I found on Amazon. I'm impressed by how much deeper and more conceptual this textbook is (in the good senses of these terms) than the largely memorization-based material I had in the 1980s. Perhaps this is a reflection of ongoing breakthroughs at the foundations of biology?

In French she's continuing with A-LM French Level III, and regularly conversation practice avec moi. On her own she continues through  Wheelock’s Latin.

In art she's continuing classes at the after-school high school program at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts: Foundation Drawing, Oil Painting, and Life Drawing.

And music lessons continue, including Chopin's Sunshine Etude for piano, Bach's Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major for organ, Mozart's A major violin concerto, and Dvorak's Sonatina for violin and piano (piano part).

At some point I'll need to relinquish control, but it's tempting to wait a bit longer yet.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The transition to college, II: what if your disability disables your abiity to get the help you need?

In light of the scary new challenges of J's first semester of college, I've appreciated the supportive suggestions from you guys.

Anonymous asks: Is having someone explain the computer science assignment something you could find, but not something to expect the school to provide?

And kcab writes: Can J meet with the CS professor or TA to discuss assignments when they're given - during office hours or other times? They'd be best placed to say what it is they want and might also benefit if they learn how the assignments are misunderstood. Sounds like J might need someone to take notes during that meeting though - perhaps another student could?

Shortly writing that earlier post, I accompanied J to a meeting with his faculty advisor. There, I learned, among other things, that the school offers a variety of tutoring centers tailored for particular subjects, including computer science. I also learned that the staff at the computer science center work directly with the comp sci professors and are on top of what is going on in specific classes. And I learned that they would have been able to assist J with the sort of things that were baffling him: i.e., what exactly the various (multi-page) assignments were asking him to do, and how to find/download/run/interact with the various websites/software/assignment submission mechanisms involved in completing and submitting the assignments.

If only J had paid attention to one of the many times these services were mentioned, he would have known about them in time to succeed in classes that he's now having to drop.

One of the many ironies here is that one of the classes J is in danger of failing is a "college experience" class whose raison d'etre is to help students not fail classes. It is in this class where, if only J had been paying attention, he would have learned about the various tutoring centers.

The model for college students with disabilities assumes not just a certain level of self-advocacy, but also a certain level of attentiveness, especially to oral discourse. It assumes, in other words, that the student's disability isn't one that impairs actively seeking out, and attending to, information about additional supports that go beyond the boiler plate disability accommodations in the disability letter. In this sense, J's disability is meta: it impairs his access to the very things that are supposed to increase access to the help he most needs.

There are other challenges for the under-self-advocating, under-attentive student. As I noted earlier, the boiler plate accommodation most obviously helpful to J is note taking services. As it turns out, however, it's not enough to have "note taking" written down on the disability letter that one submits to one's various professors on the first day of class. Two weeks into the semester, one realizes that an additional step was necessary: filling out and sending over to the disability office a second form that requests a note taker for specific classes. Several weeks further into the semester, one realizes that a third step was necessary: emailing the disability office and asking them where the note-takers are. Only at that point is one explicitly assigned note takers and provided with their contact information.

Even then, all you have is a note-taker for class time; not for tutoring sessions (great suggestion, kcab!) or for any interviews that you might have to do as part of completing an assignment (for example, an assignment for your "college experience" class).

Much is made in the disability world about the transition from high school to college. One of the biggest challenges, in our experience, is going from an environment where a designated individual at the school is responsible for watching over you and making sure you get what you need, to one in which there is no such person or entity, nor any obvious mechanism for going beyond the various boiler plate accommodations.

Then, before you know it, you are floundering even in the classes that (a) you're normally good at or (b) are supposed to be helping you rather than hurting you--all because of the ways in which your disability completely undermines your ability to get what you need to succeed.

The "transition to college" could use a little less lip service and a lot more actual transition.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Math problems of the week: 3rd grade Common Core-inspired math problems

The predominant interpretations of the Common Core Standards appear to be reinforcing the growing displacement of exercises involving arithmetic concepts with those involving the classification of shapes.

Engage NY's 3rd grade curriculum, for example, has a whole unit devoted to polygon classification, culminating in exercises like this one:

Even Singapore Math is getting in on the game. Compare a question in its 3rd grade Common Core Edition placement test:

..with the corresponding question in its (much shorter!) 3rd grade 3rd and U.S. Edition placement test:

Extra Credit

1. Discuss how the Common-Core shape classification problems overemphasize labels over concepts.

2. For the purposes of preparing children for 21st century colleges and careers, are labels more important than concepts?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

What can't be reasonably accommodated

J is midway through his first semester in college and, depending on how you look at things, they're either going much better, or much worse, than expected.

On the positive side, he's getting himself to class on time (he commutes from home), interacting appropriately with professors and classmates in person and by email, participating in class, spending many hours daily doing his work, and turning in most assignments on time without reminders. In the subject that has always been his weakest, English, he's coming up with plenty of things to say, even when asked to write personal narratives, and expressing himself relatively clearly and grammatically. In another required course, introductory psychology, he's very much enjoying the content. He remembers to keep non-routine appointments, and when things go awry--like when the Pope comes to town and the class schedule changes, or when he forgets to bring a hard copy of an assignment and has to figure out a way to print it out on campus--he's on top of it rather than freaked out. In all these respects, he's far outperforming the J of our wildest hopes and dreams.

On the negative side, he's doing very badly in several of his classes. He has bombed on several midterms. He has lost many points on a number of his computer science assignments. He'll probably have to drop at least one class--maybe more. And, though he can earn some extra credit points for psychology by participating in psych experiments, his hearing and language disabilities have disqualified him from 3/4 of the experiments currently recruiting subjects.

The problem isn't that J doesn't understand the concepts. He's a quick, efficient programmer and has an intuitive feel for computational issues. Nor do the concepts in introductory psychology--operant conditioning, cognitive fallacies, optical illusions, procedural vs. declarative memory--appear to baffle him.

The problem isn't a lack of accommodation: J has his disability letter and has been approved for all the accommodations that seem possibly helpful. He has note takers, extended time on tests, priority seating, access to power points ahead of class, tutoring…

The problem, rather, is that J continues to struggle with language. In particular, he continues have great difficulty understanding the language of lectures and textbooks, and of tests and assignments. Presented with a multiple choice question, several crucial words within the question or the choices invariably trip him up and, even if he knows the material or concept being probed, he doesn't know which of the choices answers the question. Presented with long set of verbal directions for a computer science assignment, he thinks he knows what to do--and ends up doing a completely different assignment.

Should he changed his major to math, where the verbal directions are less complicated--but the job options perhaps not as good?

Of all J's accommodations, most helpful are those that put oral language in writing: the note taking and power points. But these do not address the core problem of Language in general. (Plus, given all the virtues of note-taking, J is missing out on a lot in not being able to process language well enough to take notes himself).

What J really needs right now is (1) a psychology text that somehow covers the same material in much more simple, autism-friendly language and (2) someone who understands what's being assigned in his computer science classes and can sit down with him and translate those expectations into simple, autism friendly language. But these are nowhere near what would be considered "reasonable" accommodations.

One might reply that perhaps J shouldn't be in college in the first place. But I'm not sure where else would be more appropriate for him at this time. And this, plus the fact, for so many aspects of college, J has so remarkably risen to the occasion, makes me want to find a way, somehow, to help him make it work.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Why lectures won't be making a comeback any time soon

Responding to my previous post on the benefits of lectures, momof4 astutely writes:

much of the benefit requires students to be well-prepared; having done required readings and reviewed previous lecture notes (as needed for clarification and greater understanding) and to be diligent in attendance - and I'm given to understand that this is no longer common. It's also necessary to be able to take good, comprehensive notes - yes, by hand - and I think many kids lack the at-least-semi-cursive speed necessary (print tends to be too slow) and/or the ability to outline well - and both speed and organization are essential. I remember having at least 12-15 pages of outline notes (pretty small writing) for each 3-hr history class and almost that for sciences (or more if lots of diagrams).

I think it's likely that kids are not taught outlining any more and I guess teaching cursive has disappeared. My 5th-grade teacher taught us to outline, first with written material, then with short lectures. Notes were turned in, corrected and graded. This continued, with increasing frequency and complexity, through 8th grade. In HS, we were expected to be able to take appropriate notes on our own. This was especially true for college prep classes, but US history was all juniors together and passing meant taking decent notes. I think we're at the point where kids expect study guides, reviews etc - not just in HS but in college, to the point of not being able to do without such aids. The real world doesn't work that way.
What a thoughtful, interesting comment, highlighting a bunch of circumstances that must converge for lectures to be beneficial. It's interesting how several of these circumstances are totally at odds with current trends in education:

1. Penmanship skills. Today's penmanship instruction frequently stops at the how-tos of letter formation. While some children get further their own, few get explicit instruction in fast, fluent, legible handwriting techniques (for example, cursive).

2. Outlining skills. It's interesting to learn that these were once taught and graded. I was in K12 in the 70's and 80's and never experienced this. My note-taking skills are not what they could be.

3. The expectation that students are well-prepared in terms of having internalized previous content--an expectation that, in the age of Google, is increasingly obsolete.

Then there's:

4. The expectation that students listen at length to their teachers (as opposed to, say, doing most of the talking themselves).

So to convince K12 teachers to go back to lecture-style teaching, you'd also have to persuade them to teach penmanship and outlining, and to hold students more accountable for content and listening. But as Internet "research" gets easier and easier, as classroom-based keyboards increasingly displace pen and paper, as note-taking software usurps more and more of the note taking process, and as teacher and technology-generated study guides (from Power Points to Prezi) become ever more commonplace, I'm guessing this is unlikely to happen any time in the near or distant future.