Tuesday, September 29, 2015

From Frankenstein to Facilitated Communication

What do Frankenstein and Facilitated Communication have in common? Both involve miraculous stories of word learning.

In one case you have a nonverbal child who, supplied with some sort of facilitated communication medium, suddenly evinces neurotypical vocabulary (not to mention neurotypical grammar and conversational skills). In the other case you have a humanoid monster mastering his first language by overhearing, through the window of his hovel, conversations between his unwitting nextdoor neighbors. The facilitated child starts writing poetry and novels; the humanoid listener reads Plutarch and Milton. As I noted earlier in connection with the former:

You watch these children’s eyes (to the extent that the videos let you), and you see little or no evidence of focused or coordinated eye gaze; you see eyes that seem to flit all over the place, or to stare upwards or outwards at nothing in particular (and often not at the keyboard that their fingers are pushing against).  
Perhaps all this can be explained by sensory-motor problems rather than socio-cognitive impairments. But then you have to ask: how can kids whose eyes seem not to be able to track pointing gestures or eye gazes, and who would seem therefore to have no way to deduce what people’s words refer to when uttered, have managed to learn the words for the various things in their everyday environments? Not to mention the more advanced words that have somehow entered their soliloquies, poetry, and memoirs: words like “assume” and “knowingly”?  
More advanced learners can pick up words from texts alone, but to jumpstart the process you (however neurotypical or neurountypical you are) need real-world connections. Before you can read for meaning, that is, you need a critical mass of basic vocabulary that you’ve actively linked to the outside world. And linking those basic words to the outside world--in other words to their meanings--requires of you (however neurotypical or neurountypical you are) a certain threshold of sustained and appropriately targeted auditory and visual attention.
It’s also essential to be actively engaged with those using language around you. Overhearing language on TV, it turns out, doesn’t do much for language novices; what’s essential is shared space, shared attention, and the ability to look up at the speaker’s eyes and then over to what he or she is looking it. Children with autism, even if they share space with language users, often don’t share attention. They may mis-map the words they hear to whatever they themselves are attending to, not noticing that the speaker is looking elsewhere, thereby mis-learning the word meanings.

Language takes off outside of 3D shared space and shared attention only after you learn a critical mass of words in your first language. Picture books, and books with illustrations, diagrams, and maps, and glossaries, provide a crucial bridge over to pure prose. Once there, you can learn troves of new words from the surrounding words you already know.

Another bridge is your first language: via glossaries, translations, and explanations, it can jumpstart you into a second language.

But for total language novices, printed words and overheard words are not enough. Fairy tales aside, that is.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Who speaks for reading, writing and literature?, II

Just as those to whom math comes easily, e.g. mathematicians, sometimes seem to think that one can learn math simply by playing around with numbers, those to whom reading comes easily, e.g. literary people, sometimes seem to think that one can learn reading and literature simply by reading what's around. No need for gradual practice with progressively tougher language and content (let alone explicit instruction in phonics): simply dive into what's there--preferably the classics--no matter how prohibitive the prose.

Thus, the unschooled Kit in Blackbird Pond learns to read from the grownup books in her grandfather's library; the unschooled Jane Eyre, aged 10, is reading Gulliver's Travels and A History of British Birds; and Calpurnia in To Kill A Mockingbird has learned how to read from Blackstone's Commentaries. As for Frankenstein's monster, the most unschooled of them all, after just a few months observing the speech and the informal reading lessons of some unsuspecting neighbors through the window of his hovel, he has not only mastered his first language, but is reading Sorrows of Young Werther, Plutarch's Lives, and Paradise Lost.

Of course, there are easier books out there for today's kids--including, for example, Jane Eyre and To Kill a Mockingbird. But I wonder what effect it has on both students and educators to keep reading about how easily reading comes to some of our most celebrated characters.

Friday, September 25, 2015

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

I. Three sample 3rd grade questions from from Pennsylvania's revised PSSA tests:




II. Extra Credit:

Is it higher-level thinking to consider which of four methods to use rather than to come up with your own method and use it?

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

What's soft for neurotypicals can prickle those with autism

Day three of College has begin, and so far, so good. J has been navigating the campus on his own and getting to classes on his own, on time. He's gone to the bookstore and purchased a textbook. He's had lunch in the cafeteria. He's been interacting with professors: giving them his "disability letter" (Notice of Accommodations) at the end of class and, apparently, participating in class. As far as we know, he hasn't committed any major blunders.

In terms of J's classes, the good news is that most of them have websites. If he neglects to get a syllabus, or to take notes, there's often a syllabus or lecture notes on BlackBoard. (He is supposed to have a note taker; that should be set up following the Notice of Accommodations).

The bad news is that some of these (mostly technical) classes are starting off with "soft" assignments that seem designed to ease accessibility for neurotypical students: an interview with a computer science professor about his career choices; a research paper on recent developments in one of the core areas of computer science.

But here's a general rule of thumb: What makes things more accessible to neurotypicals often makes them less accessible to those on the spectrum. And, while the Notice of Accommodations has everything considered "reasonable accommodations" for autism in it--from note-taking and laptop use to separate rooms for exams--there's nothing about opting out of those soft, "accessibility"-easing assignments.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Friday, September 18, 2015

Math problems of the week: Common Core-inspired test questions vs. Singapore Math

I. From a sample 3rd grade question from from Pennsylvania's revised PSSA tests (given at the end of 3rd grade):


II. The wordiest problem in the Singapore Math 3B placement test, which tests readiness for moving on to the fourth grade curriculum:




II. Extra Credit:

Compare the verbal and mathematical demands of the two problems. To what extent does each reward mathematical cleverness as opposed to reading skills?


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

More lectures about how bad lectures are

In an Op-Ed in this weekend's New York Times entitled "Are College Lectures Unfair?", Annie Murphy Paul proposes that lectures disadvantage women and minorities.

...a growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is... a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students.
It's not the instructors themselves, but
 the lecture format itself — when used on its own without other instructional supports — that offers unfair advantages to an already privileged population.
Given the dearth of courses consisting of lectures and no other instructional supports (no textbooks, no discussion sections, no teaching assistants), I'm curious what this "growing body of evidence" consists of.

Paul contrasts the lecture format with "active learning." The latter:
provides increased structure, feedback and interaction, prompting students to become participants in constructing their own knowledge rather than passive recipients.
Apparently students who listen to lectures, take notes, and study their notes afterwards, aren't constructing their own knowledge--at least if they are women and/or minorities.

In contrast, "active learning," while it benefits everyone, especially benefits those who aren't "white males from more affluent, educated families."

One reason, Paul says, is background knowledge:
poor and minority students are disproportionately likely... to have missed out on the rich academic and extracurricular offerings familiar to their wealthier white classmates, thus arriving on campus with less background knowledge.
Background knowledge, in turn, helps us "learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess." And because "students with more background knowledge will be better able to absorb and retain what they hear," lectures are problematic for students with less of it.

But why single out lectures in particular? Presumably anything for which knowledge is "background" is problematic--"active learning" activities included. Plus, lectures are among the most efficient ways to consume background knowledge. If you're lacking in background knowledge about, say, the 1930s or the geologic eras, surely you'll gain that knowledge faster by attending to someone's oral or written prose rather than by doing some sort of "active learning" exercises.

As for the latter, many of these turn out to be either already commonplace, or easy to incorporate, in so-called "lecture" classes:
Active-learning courses deliberately structure in-class and out-of-class assignments to ensure that students repeatedly engage with the material. The instructors may pose questions about the week’s reading, for example, and require students to answer the questions online, for a grade, before coming to class.
...
Other active-learning courses administer frequent quizzes that oblige students to retrieve knowledge from memory rather than passively read it over in a textbook. Such quizzes have been shown to improve retention of factual material among all kinds of students.

One of the studies Paul refers to is one I blogged about earlier and about which an earlier New York Times article rhapsodized:
Surveys of students who had taken the class showed that those who had the more active approach [the graded questions about the reading] were far more likely to have done the reading, and they spent more hours on the work, participated more in class and were more likely to view the class as a community.
And as I noted in my earlier post:
Is it really newsworthy that many of today's students won't do the reading unless they are held accountable for it? Or that students are more likely to participate in class if they are given in-class activities to do?
The question, of course, is why these extrinsic incentives would motivate minorities and women more than white males.

Besides its supposed lack of active learning, another problem with the lecture is that it creates:
a high-pressure atmosphere that may discourage [minority, low-income, and first-generation students] from volunteering to answer questions, or impair their performance if they are called on. Research in psychology has found that academic performance is enhanced by a sense of belonging — a feeling that students from these groups often acutely lack.
Paul neglects to say how "active learning" classes, with graded reading questions and frequent tests, would foster lower pressure and a greater sense of belonging. One active learning environment is the discussion section, where white men famously do most of the talking.

It's at this point in the article that Paul addresses the much-begged question of why lectures are bad for the half of the population with two X chromosomes:
a 2014 study found that although women made up 60 percent of large introductory biology courses, they accounted for less than 40 percent of those responding to instructors’ questions.
Does this lower rate of in-class question answering affect how well the females learn biology (and what grades they get)? Paul does not say.

Females also apparently thrive in "flipped" classrooms:
In a study to be published later this year, researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Yale University compare a course in physical chemistry taught in traditional lecture style to the same course taught in a “flipped” format, in which lectures were moved online and more time was devoted to in-class problem-solving activities. Exam performance over all was nearly 12 percent higher in the flipped class. Female students were among those who benefited the most, allowing them to perform at almost the same level as their male peers.
Since the study hasn't been published yet, I hesitate to draw conclusions. To what degree did the exam questions mirror the kinds of activities students did in class? To what degree did the exams test the knowledge imparted in the online lectures? And are women really more dependent on in-class learning exercises than men are?

And how does any of this "evidence," however "growing," show the lecture to be "a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others"?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Multiple strategies for growth mindsets?

Speaking of ideas that contemporary individuals or school of thought have claimed to have invented, consider the "growth mindset." As front-page article in this week's Education Week explains:

The concept of growth mindsets has gained a foothold in many schools, where teachers emphasize that the brain can grow and change and that students don't enter school with a set of unchangeable strengths and weaknesses. In general, that means praising effort over personal traits and encouraging students to learn from mistakes by developing new strategies to approach problems.
A brain that grows and changes and learns new skills? Praising effort rather than personality traits? Encouraging students to learn from mistakes? To try new strategies when other strategies fail? What revolutionary ideas!

Equalling groundbreaking is "research that shows that student mindsets and persistence are linked to academic success." In other words, if you believe that you can overcome weaknesses, and if you work persistently, then you're more likely to succeed! However counter-intuitive this may be, Edweek notes that more schools are buying into this idea that ever before:
Some teachers are also making efforts on their own to learn about the mindset concept. Stanford University's Project for Education Research That Scales, or PERTS, released a series of online courses about mindsets for parents and teachers last month.
(Yet another revolutionary idea: PERTS!).

Some of the courses' key concepts are: encouraging students to ask questions that they may be afraid to ask; telling students that they can learn from their mistakes; and presenting specific mistakes and discussing them with the class.

Also key is the concept of a "sweet spot": a point where you find yourself struggling. Apparently this is where you need to persevere (and "unpack").

What is reasonable isn't new, and what is new isn't reasonable. Aside from confusing labels with concepts and dressing up old concepts in new labels, the growth mindset crowd has some new advice on math instruction. Here Edweek turns to Philip Uri Treisman, "a mathematics professor and director of the University of Texas' Charles A. Dana Center, which focuses on math and science education":
Merely challenging students to change their mindsets without also changing the way math is taught can be "dangerous," Treisman said. Without a grasp on math skills and opportunities to apply those skills and develop strategies, students will receive the message that even effort can't help them improve, he said.
Educators, it turns out, are undermining the growth mindset (and presumably also the "unpacking" of the "sweet spot") by prescribing particular algorithms for particular problems. In order to promote a growth mindset in math, you need to teach through "open problems":
which challenge students to explain a concept rather than quickly identify one solution. This gives them a chance to explore strategies for solving a problem and recognize there is often more than one way to make sense of it rather than judging their own math skills by whether or not they get the initial answer correct.
If math were music, Treisman adds, mastering the basic concepts would be like learning scales and leading students through discussions of open problems would be like playing songs. Inspiring this insight, perhaps, are equally insightful insights from Paul Lockhart and Keith Devlin.

One of the PERTS instructors is the eminently ethical and trustworthy Jo Boaler. Boaler notes that:
In a traditional problem, a teacher may give students the dimensions of a rectangle and ask them to find its perimeter. In an open problem, a teacher may ask students to draw three rectangles with a certain perimeter and explain their work.
The Edweek article provides the following illustration:


Interestingly, a 2006 paper by Cornelia S. Große (University of Bremen) and Alexander Renkl (University of Freiburg) has reached a slightly different conclusion about how multiple strategies/solutions affects student success. (Many thanks to Barry Garelick for sending me this paper!). Entitled "Effects of multiple solution methods in mathematics learning" and published in Learning and Instruction (Volume 16, pp. 122-138), it discusses how:
we found that learning with multiple solutions reduces the learners’ effort to spontaneously solve parts of the problems on their own... In addition, the learners’ insight into analogies between examples seemed to have been hindered. It can be assumed that dealing with multiple solutions is so demanding that the learners do not have enough ‘‘free’’ cognitive capacity available to compare examples or to try to solve parts of them on their own.
The multiple solutions approach of "open problems," it seems, might actually undermine growth mindsets.

Will this 9-year-old finding ever permeate the American edworld? Or, when it comes to fostering growth mindsets, is there but a single, pre-prescribed strategy for everyone?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

In search of lost time: social constructivism in the 1910s

via Marcel Proust:

Mais même au point de vue des plus insignifiantes choses de la vie, nous ne sommes pas un tout matériellement constitué, identique pour tout le monde et dont chacun n'a qu'à aller prendre connaissance comme d'un cahier des charges ou d'un testament; notre personnalité sociale est une création de la pensée des autres. Même l'acte si simple que nous appelons “voir une personne que nous connaissons” est en partie un acte intellectuel. Nous remplissons l’apparence physique de l’être que nous voyons, de toutes les notions que nous avons sur lui et dans l’aspect total que nous nous représentons, ces notions ont certainement la plus grande part. Elles finissent par gonfler si parfaitement les joues, par suivre en une adhérence si exacte la ligne du nez, elles se mêlent si bien de nuancer la voix comme si celle-ci n'était qu'une transparente enveloppe, que chaque fois que nous voyons ce visage et que nous entendons cette voix, ce sont ces notions que nous retrouvons, que nous écoutons.
English translation:
But even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is created by the thoughts of other people. Even the simple act which we describe as "seeing some one we know" is, to some extent, an intellectual process. We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we have already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him which we compose in our minds those ideas have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope, so that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is our own ideas of him which we recognise and to which we listen.
Every once in a while I make time to read a timeless classic. And every so often I discover ideas there that some more contemporary individual, or school of thought, has claimed to have invented. Besides the socially constructed personality of À la recherche du temps perdu (1913), I remember rediscovering the subconscious, supposedly discovered by Freud, in an intricate discussion by George Eliot in Adam Bede (1859). Then there's the postmodernism meta-textual self-referentiality in Tom Jones (1749) and Don Quixote (1615)--claimed by some to be the world's first novels.

Who knows how many other supposedly breakthrough ideas of modern times date back hundreds of years? But probably one of the best places to start looking is education theory, with its Grit, its Growth Mindsets, and, of course, the more reasonable aspects of its version of Proust's Constructivism.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Math problems of the week: 7th grade Common Core-inspired problem vs. Singapore Math

I. From a sample 7th grade question from from Pennsylvania's revised PSSA tests:



II. From the Singapore Math 5A placement test, which tests readiness for the second half of the fifth grade curriculum:




II. Extra Credit:

Compare the two problems in terms of:

(1) how hard they are to follow verbally

(2) how hard they are to set up mathematically once you've figured out the verbal stuff

In answering (1), be sure to consider gratuitous difficulties like:

(a) how the information is organized
(b) confusing phrasing and ambiguity (e.g., did Ryan ride another portion of the distance at a fast speed for some purpose other than training?).

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

21st century skills: technology production--or technology consumption

After a long and bumpy ride, a pilot version of the SentenceWeaver has finally found a home in a couple of local autistic support classrooms where it will undergo its first round of usability testing. As I've observed children using it, I've already had one concern. Some kids are clearly expecting more bells and whistles.

Unfortunately, for all the ways in which the SentenceWeaver's educational content outcompetes that of other programs, the other programs outcompete the SentenceWeaver in their their nifty graphics, fast-moving animations, and video game-like environments. Some of the worst offenders--e.g., CoolMath--are also widely used in schools, and kids are getting used to what they offer. The more these hyperactive programs permeate the classroom, the harder it may be to engage kids in quieter counterparts like the SentenceWeaver (or its progenitor, the GrammarTrainer)--especially ones that, like the GT/SW, embody the notion that learning requires a certain amount of mental effort as opposed to passive entertainment.

This makes me think of the educational choices of some of the top developers in the software industry. Many of them are choosing Waldorf Schools, with their famously low-tech, active-learning curriculum. It would seem that some educational software developers, while in the business of training other people's kids to be passive consumers of technology, are all the while training their own kids to become active producers.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Real-world problems with real-world projects

I've long had reservations about the real-world projects that much of the edworld is infatuated with. They often detract from time spent on foundational content and basic skills. They often involve a large ratio of effort/time to learning (with time lost to travel, assembly, and other logistics). They often don't match the actual real-world demands that students need to meet upon graduating. And, to the extent that they do, they are perhaps better learned out completely outside the academic setting--i.e., out in the real world. Let the academic courses focus on what they're most suited to: generalized content and basic skills.

Recently a more practical downside to real-world projects has occurred to me: they're much easier than traditional assignments are to fake. No one's looking; no one's checking to see if the real world is as you say it is, or whether you actually went out and did what you said you did in it. Does the classroom or clinic you observed in actually exist? Are the people you interviewed real people? Did you actually conduct the experiment you wrote up and drew diagrams for? Are the results you reported ones you actually got, or merely ones you were hoping for?

Of course, similar questions apply out in the real world--as the field of psychology has recently discovered. Perhaps other fields will follow suit.

Friday, September 4, 2015

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

I. A sample end-of-5th grade test question from Pennsylvania's revised PSSA tests.


II. From the Singapore Math 5B (second half of 5th grade) placement test:



III. Extra Credit 

The most relevant part of Common Core-inspired goals indexed at the top of the PSSA problem (goals B-0.1.1.2 and B-0.1.1.1)  is: "interpret numerical expressions without evaluating them."

Discuss the comparative difficulty of this task as compared with the modeling challenge presented by the Singapore Math problem.

Which of these problems exhibits traces of the confusion between teaching math skills vs. teaching math education skills?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

21st century student-professor relationships

Deficiencies in the following skills:

(1) attending to and understanding directions
(2) being competent enough to fulfill them
(3) getting your own points across clearly

not to mention
(4) general reading comprehension
(5) general writing skills

also affect student-teacher relations.

Below a certain level of competence, certain students may simply not be capable of earning what they consider a decent grade, and, worse, may blame the wrong person (i.e., you rather than themselves).

They'll blame you for unclear directions; for grading them unfairly; for being too negative in your critiques; for suggesting, wrongly, that they missed certain key points; for being unhelpful when you refuse to digest the readings for them; for being disrespectful when you tell them to re-read the directions carefully. If you ask them to verify something or redo something and you don't take an evasion for an answer, they may accuse you of harassment. Often convinced that they're doing just as well as the rest of their classmates, they may accuse you of discrimination--even if they are white and male. (Yes, a student once accused me of being biased against men!).

And, because your evaluations of them are public while their evaluations of you are anonymous, students can be as rude as they like, especially when it's time to rate you. They can be surprisingly rude even in personal emails. You, meanwhile, (assuming you need to take your course ratings seriously) have to tiptoe around their insults and accusations.

Most students aren't like this. Most were rightly admitted by the relevant admissions departments and are competent enough in skills 1-5 to do well. These students are a pleasure to teach and correspond with. Unfortunately, however, what takes up most of your psychic energy are often the one or two that aren't.

Nor is it necessarily entirely their fault: consider the K12 pipeline that was supposed to prepare them for "college and career."