Friday, October 30, 2015

Math problems of the week: sample 12th grade Chinese vs. American math assessment questions

I. A sample question from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), otherwise known as the Nation's Report Card:

II. A sample question from the Gao Kao, a college entrance exam typically taken by high school seniors:

III. Extra Credit

Discuss these two problems in light of:

1. The recently reported drop in America's 4th and 8th grade NAEP scores.

2. The claim by Americans that Chinese math is all about mindless rote memorization.


It has recently occurred to me that Americans routinely make similar claims about Chinese musicians. Consider how often we hear things like "They may have great technique but they play robotically." From my experience at various amateur and professional piano and violin recitals, I'd say that Americans' claims about Chinese musical performance are of about as valid as their claims about Chinese mathematical performance.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Mindfulness classrooms: another way to bore our students and stress them out

Despite the growing backlash against Mindfulness (see here, here, and here), our K12 schools, increasingly, are embracing it. Again, anything other than teaching kids interesting things and assigning them appropriately challenging tasks.

A recent article in the Huffington Post, for example, reports that Washington DC's largest elementary school (700+ students) has a weekly "Peace Class." According to Linda Ryden, the school's full-time Peace Teacher:

"At the core of Peace Class is the concept of mindfulness, which is becoming aware and noticing what is going on internally." 
"We start class by turning off the lights, taking deep breaths with our eyes closed, ringing a bell and taking some time to be totally silent. For the older kids, this can be 10 to 15 minutes of meditation. For the 4 and 5 year olds, we usually stay calm for about one minute," explains Ryden. 
In addition, conflict resolution is taught through role playing and storytelling. Ryden teaches topics such as apologizing, complimenting and thinking before speaking. She also assigns a "peace pal" to each student, usually someone who is not a close friend. The kids report back at the next class on what kind things they did for their pal.
Meanwhile, a recent New York Times article reports on Mindfulness's metastasis within Gotham and elsewhere:
In schools in New York City and in pockets around the country, the use of inward-looking practices like mindfulness and meditation is starting to grow. Though evidence is thin on how well they might work in the classroom, proponents say they can help students focus and cope with stress. 
At the Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School in Windsor Terrace, 15 minutes are set aside at the beginning and end of every school day, when students must either meditate or sit quietly at their desks.
As NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña notes:
“We’re putting it in a lot of our schools because kids are under a lot of stress.”
Perhaps being required to "either meditate or sit quietly at their desks" is de-stressing some kids, but I'll bet it's having the opposite effect on most.

When I'm stressed out, sitting quietly and doing nothing only makes things worse. In my mind, bad thoughts, like nature, abhor a vacuum.

For me (and, I suspect, many others), the answer to stress, to brooding, to pointless rumination--to all the things that Mindfulness is supposed to be addressing--is the exact opposite of Mindfulness: distraction. A loud beat and catchy tune; a lively conversation; a vigorous outing along perilous trails and spectacular scenery; an explanation of polymers and dehydration reactions.

And if I'm a stressed out school student, what I'm probably craving are challenging, engaging assignments and the option to immerse myself, independently, in my work. What I'm adamantly not craving are 15 minutes of twice-daily squirming in silence, or a weekly class period spent role-playing apologies and compliments with my "peace pal."

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Mere archaisms, or a mere of archaisms?

I originally posted this back in February of 2014, but have recently added a bunch of items to it, and, also inspired by John McWhorter's recent article on the subtle difficulties of Shakespeare, am reposting it today.


A while back, I had my daughter translate into modern English a text that included passages like these:

There Beowulf faced Grendel’s mother, wolf-of-the-deep, mere-wife monstrous. His good blade he swung for a blow. On her head sang its war-song wild; but useless was sword against charms of the she-one.  
He cast it aside, and trusted once more to his hand-grip. With grisly grasp Grendel’s mother grappled with Beowulf, till spent with the struggle, the fighter on foot, strongest of warriors, stumbled. The water-wife hurled herself on him; her dagger drew, broad and bright-edged. So had life ended for Beowulf, had not Holy God, the Wise Lord, held sway over the victory, awarding it aright.
These florid archaisms come from the From The Tower Window volume of My Book House, a series for children edited back in the 1920s by Olive Beaupré Miller.

I first encountered this series a few years ago when my parents were downsizing, and I suddenly found myself sorting through my father’s books from childhood. Chock full of folktales, fairy tales, classic tales, poetry, and history, the My Book House books struck me as Core Knowledge Incarnate. In other words, perfect for home school.

Then, when I looked beyond the tables of contents to those florid archaisms, I saw another pedagogical plus. However over-the-top the prose can be, it provides an exercise in close reading that my daughter was getting nowhere else. You can’t just skim through this stuff and snatch up a few key phrases; you really have to work to extract the full meaning.

Increasingly, indeed, old-fashioned English—whether actual or concocted—is like a foreign language to K12 students. Their reading assignments are increasingly contemporary and “relevant”—or accompanied by modern, “no-fear” translations. And their spare time goes increasingly to extracurriculars and to screen-based media rather than to 19th century Victorian novels and performances of Twelfth Night. Overall, one finds ever fewer archaisms in the books on desks and bedside tables, and one hears ever fewer of them (as memorized verses and adages) from the mouths of elders. The cycle, set in motion at least a generation ago, continues.

And so there are a whole host of features of older English that kids simply haven’t encountered, from the syntactic inversions (“On her head sang its war-song wild”) and appositive-heavy complexity (“till spent with the struggle, the fighter on foot, strongest of warriors, stumbled”), to the sometimes subtle differences in vocabulary (“mere-wife” doesn’t mean “mere wife”!).

Mindful of what kids are no longer picking up on their own, I’ve been compiling a list of archaisms. Here are a few:


1. Inversions: frequent inversion of subject and verb; adjectives sometimes placed after the nouns they modify (“On her head sang its war-song wild”).

2. Extraposition of nonrestrictive relative clauses. (From the Jungle Book: “My lair is empty that was full when this moon was new”; from Wolfert Webber by Washington Irving: "He must have a tug with the devil who gets it.")

3. Conditionals and auxiliary:

a. “had” for “would have” (“So had life ended for Beowulf”; "It had been easier for him, had he…"); "were" for "would be" ("So were his fortunes over,  had not …").

b. inverted auxiliary in place of "if": "Could they have looked forward they would have been consoled to see that [their efforts weren't in vain.]"

c.  inverted auxiliary in place of "if" even in sentences that don't already have an auxiliary and "do" must be inserted: "did they know my unhallowed acts, and the crimes which had their source in me" for "if they knew my unhallowed acts…".

d. auxiliary "be" rather than "have" in verbs of coming and going--as in French and German ("he was come").

e. "would" for "would like to" ("I would speak with you").

4. Use of "should" in place of "would," whether for conditional sentences like "If I had known, I should have behaved differently," or for past future, as in "It was unlikely that he should win." Similarly, "must" for "would" in conditional sentences ("If he had at all cared about me, we must have met long, long ago.")

5. Use of "should have" in place of "had" in past-perfective constructions: "As soon as the Trojans should have left…"

6. Relative clauses with "such... as": "if they visited such sick people as refused to call in a confessor."

7. Purpose clauses: “that” instead of “so that” (“Let us die that we may live”)

8. "Never/not X but that Y" for "Never/not X that... not Y" ("Never ere now was there a tourney, but that he had the victory" [for "Never before was there a tourney that he didn't win."] "not to remove statues but what he might discover in specific excavation" [Lord Elgin's promise]).

9. Proposition X followed by "so much had" plus Proposition  Y ("He had nothing left, so much had he squandered away" -> "He squandered so much away that he had nothing left."

10. The possibility of "dative" pronouns following the direct object: "give it me."

11. Less frequent use of reflexive pronouns: "Sir Lancelot made him ready."

12. Variants in which a verb takes the prefix be- and becomes reflexive: "She thought of doing that" --> "She bethought herself of doing that"; "He took to bed"-->"He betook himself to bed."

13. Underuse of the -ly ending for adverbs: "he was sore dismayed."

14. Splitting of "so as to": "it was so arranged as to …"

15. Contractions: "'tis" rather than "it's"; "not" less frequently contracted ("Did not he say that he was coming?"/"Did he not say he was coming?" "Is not my father dead?"/"Is my father not dead?").

16. Less frequent use of "do" in negations and questions: "I knew not" instead of "I didn't know"; "Have you any money?" instead of "Do you have any money?" (where possessive "have" behaves like auxiliary "have").

17. (Related to 15): negative element later in the sentence than what we're used to: "I saw him not at all/hardly at all." (More like what we see in modern French).


Rampant use of litotes (double negatives used as understatement): "not a few" meaning "quite a lot;" "not dismayed" meaning "quite happy."


A tendency towards punctuation that we would read as interrupting the flow:

Comma before restrictive relative clause: "A piece of music, that is dear to my heart."

Occasional commas between subject and verb (when subjects are long and heavily modified).

Greater use of semi-colon, rather than comma, in lists of relatively short noun phrases.


I’m guessing that most kids still know about “thou” and “thy,” but how many of them know other common archaisms like “whence” and “thence”? Or “bid”/“bade”? Or that “must” was once used, not just for present tense “have to"/"is certain to" but for past tense “had to”/"was certain to" and past future "would have to"/"would be certain to" or future "will surely do x" ("They concluded that he must speedily be destroyed; "It's clear that he must die")

Adding to the confusion are all those “false friends” whose meanings have subtly shifted or narrowed in ways that may lead today’s novice reader astray. Among many, many others, these include “fair” for pretty or nice;  “weeds” for clothes; "art" for "skill"; "dull" for stupid; "suppose" for "assume" ("I supposed he wouldn't be at home"); "society" for company or socializing; "intercourse" for social interaction; "interview" for conversation; “might” for power; "check" for limit; "suffer" for allow; “fix” for sabotage (as in “Pelops bribed the charioteer to fix the chariot”); "discover" for find ("My father is going to London to try to discover her"; "discover" for reveal ("she discovered herself"); "condescension" as a good thing (as when a higher status person is kind to a lower status person); "late" for recent; “host” for army; "person" for personality; "particulars" for details; "agree with" or "answer to" for match/jibe with; "answer for" for serve as/work as; "answerable" for responsible; "according to" for depending on; "sensible of" for aware of; "even" for just ("even so"); "object" for goal; “closet” for private rooms; "want" for need, or be lacking in ("He does not want abilities"); "in a body" for as a group; "bring to terms" for force to surrender and agree to terms; and, most recently, "gay" for happy.

The most insidious of these are the ones whose meaning shifts are subtle enough that it’s not so obvious from context that today's meaning doesn’t work: “know” for recognize; "careless" for carefree or indifferent; “miss” for notice that something is missing; “meet” for "meet up"(get together with) or “bumped into."

Additional subtle differences include greater use of "well" for "good"; "It would be well for...." And use of "false"/"untrue" for deceptive or disloyal.

At the other end of the spectrum there’s “mere” for lake—a false friendship that is purely incidental.

Even now things are a-changin’: “before” is narrowing into a purely temporal adverb, losing its locative sense of “in front of;" while "within" has retained its locative sense ("inside of"), "without" no longer as "outside of" as one if its meaning.

Other temporal adverbials no longer exist: “of an evening,” as recently as Dickens’ day, meant “in the evenings.”

Another complication are the pronouns “I” and “you,” which subservient speakers often eschewed in favor of “your servant” (for “I”) and “my lord” (for “you”). Thus we have Judah, subservient to Joseph (but not his servant), saying to him (whom he doesn’t recognize as his brother) “May it please my lord, let your servant have a word privately with my lord. Do not be angry with your servant…”

As for third person pronouns (“he” and “she”), these are often avoided, at least in the more florid of archaic prose, in favor of epithets like “the fighter on foot” for he, Beowulf, and “the water-wife” for she, Grendel’s mother.

Then there's the use (e.g., in Jane Austen and George Eliott) of "my" where we'd say "our," as when one of the Bennett sisters, speaking to another one, refers to "my aunt" or "my father."

For naïve readers, already derailed by all that unfamiliar syntax, all that syntactic complexity, and all those false friends, context may be too confusing to provide antecedents for “your servant” or “the water-wife,” and they may instead assume that additional characters have appeared out of nowhere. Bafflement snowballs.

Decreasingly confident in their ability to make any sense of it all, they may start tuning out, losing the presence of mind necessary to decode even rather obvious idioms in passages like:
Beowulf bade be fitted by a good sea-goer that fare over the swan road, over the sea streets, Hrothgar to help in his horror.
The result is that, to most students today, this kind of archaic prose really is a foreign language.

And this brings me to one additional handicap that these kids face if and when they ever encounter older texts: their foreign language instruction, or lack thereof. As I’ve noted earlier, there has been a serious decline in foreign language grammar instruction and in text translation exercises.

In short, not only do today’s students lack the longitudinal, incidental exposure to archaisms that would make these texts more accessible; they also increasingly lack the tools necessary to tackle them as the foreign texts they otherwise become.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Math problem of the week: one more Common Core-inspired geometry proof

I. One of only two problems involving an actual proof in the 18 sample problems in PARCC's practice geometry test (the proof part of the problem, Part B, is highlighted below):

(For the other proof problem in this test, see last week's post.)

Extra Credit: 

In how many steps can this proof be completed?

Does practice constructing lengthy proofs play any role in preparing for college and career in the 21st century?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The actual social skills shortage

So do the best jobs require social skills? In her Sunday Times Op-Ed, Claire Cain Miller provides abundant evidence that the best paying, most enduring jobs do, indeed, increasingly require these. Consider how automation, robotics, and outsourcing to India have eliminated more and more mechanical and technical jobs in this country. It's an argument that we've been hearing at least since Daniel Pink.

Miller cites Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who

did groundbreaking work concluding that noncognitive skills like character, dependability and perseverance are as important as cognitive achievement.
It's not clear, however, how much research Heckman has done to back up his second claim:
They [character, dependability and perseverance] can be taught, he said, yet American schools don’t necessarily do so.
Is the noble prize winning economist also an expert in cognitive science and pedagogy?

Miller, too, appears to believe schools can make a difference:
to prepare students for the change in the way we work, the skills that schools teach may need to change. Social skills are rarely emphasized in traditional education.
Also weighing in is David Deming, an associate professor of education and economics at Harvard University:
Preschool classrooms, Mr. Deming said, look a lot like the modern work world. Children move from art projects to science experiments to the playground in small groups, and their most important skills are sharing and negotiating with others. But that soon ends, replaced by lecture-style teaching of hard skills, with less peer interaction.
If Deming truly believes that what follows preschool is lecture style teaching of hard skills, he hasn't been in a K12 classroom in a very, very long time.

Assuming that social skills can be taught in classrooms, how would one teach them? All Miller has to say about this is that some schools are experimenting:
At many business and medical schools, students are assigned to small groups to complete their work. So-called flipped classrooms assign video lectures before class and reserve class for discussion or group work. The idea is that traditional lectures involve too little interaction and can be done just as well online.
For a debunking of this last "idea," see Sunday's other Op-Ed. Also, the more time you spend viewing lectures outside of class, the less time you have for group activities outside of class. Is the classroom really the place for group activities? As Miller reports Deborah Slaner Larkin, chief executive of the Women’s Sports Foundation, as saying:
Another way to teach these skills is through group activities like sports, band or drama.. Students learn important workplace skills, she said: trusting one another, bringing out one another’s strengths and being coachable.
Of course, such opportunities have been around for a very long time--along with play grounds and play dates. Perhaps this is one reason why most people--neurotypical people--have social skills, and why we never hear about businesses lamenting a social skills shortage (for all the other skill shortages they do lament).

What about individuals on the autistic spectrum? Miller has nothing to say about this population, which is ironic, since this is the one population whom a social skills curriculum potentially benefits.

Everything in Miller's piece suggests that people with autism are doomed to deep unemployment. While this, too, reflects a sad reality, let's consider what kinds of social skills really are necessary for workplace success. Here's Miller citing Deming on the economic value of interpersonal skills:
Say two workers are publishing a research paper. If one excels at data analysis and the other at writing, they would be more productive and create a better product if they collaborated. But if they lack interpersonal skills, the cost of working together might be too high to make the partnership productive.
If we're talking about the psychological cost of working together, it strikes me that the real problem isn't autism, but sociopathy. I've said it before here, and I said it again in my comment on the Times piece:
If businesses are savvy about hiring, they shouldn't be avoiding individuals on the autistic spectrum, who are often quite ethical and hardworking, and, while often socially awkward, are rarely socially nasty. Businesses should instead be avoiding the charming sociopaths who look great in interviews but make life miserable for everyone but their superiors as they work their way through the ranks. 
When people talk about poor social skills, they often conflate two very different things.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Lecture me--across the curriculum!

Two Op-Ed pieces in Sunday's New York Times draw opposite conclusions about what directions classrooms should be heading in.

In "Lecture Me. Really" Molly Worthen extolls the virtue of that much-maligned, decreasingly fashionable mode of teaching, namely, the lecture.

Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. 
At least as far as the humanities are concerned, Worthen argues, lectures are essential:
essential for teaching the humanities’ most basic skills: comprehension and reasoning, skills whose value extends beyond the classroom to the essential demands of working life and citizenship.
Lectures provide exercises that few of todays students get elsewhere: in sustaining attention, in continuous listening, and in organizing and synthesizing information. These are hard tasks for all students, but, in our grit-'n'-growth-obsessed mindsets, all the more reason for lectures. As Worthen notes:
Some research suggests that minority and low-income students struggle even more. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. Moreover, we capitulate to the worst features of the customer-service mentality that has seeped into the university from the business world. The solution, instead, is to teach those students how to gain all a great lecture course has to give them.
One particularly valuable way to gain this is through note taking. Note taking forces you to organize and synthesize the material as it comes in:
Studies suggest that taking notes by hand helps students master material better than typing notes on a laptop, probably because most find it impossible to take verbatim notes with pen and paper. 
And where verbatim is impossible, spontaneous synthesizing and summarizing are essential.

As Worthen points out, taking notes on a lecture is not passive; nor is the lecture a passive "declamation of an encyclopedia article." Here it's worth repeating her earlier statement: Those who want to abolish the lecture course do not understand what a lecture is. 

My only quibble with Worthen is that I wouldn't single out humanities courses as uniquely suited to lectures. Much of what she says here applies to courses--and learning--in general.

I have a few more quibbles with another Op-Ed in Sunday's paper, one entitled "The Best Jobs Require Social Skills." Stay tuned for a follow-up...

Saturday, October 17, 2015

An earthshaking article for students with autism

The child with autism has long been a poster child for all that’s wrong with current trends in education. The lack of structure and the lack of direct instruction in today’s project-based, group-based, guide-on-the-side classrooms; the amount of time students spend working in groups; the growing influence that “non-cognitive” skills like organization, sociability, and public speaking ability have on grades—all of these shortchange those who struggle socially, organizationally, and orally, and who depend more than other learners do on structure and direct instruction.

For the Powers that Be who have promoted and enacted these trends, and for the many education professionals who are ideologically committed to them, a recent article in Medscape will come as a godsend. Even its title cries out to them: “Standard Approach to Autism May Actual Impair Learning.” The article cites findings showing that “repetitive training,” a staple of “autism education,” may cause cognitive inflexibility, and that reducing repetition in teaching may enhance learning in autism. It then quotes one “autism expert” not involved in the study as calling these results “potentially earthshaking.”

Indeed, given the dominant paradigm, these results well may be earthshaking—but earthshaking in a bad way; earthshaking for children with autism. As characterized by articles like this one, these results risk empowering schools to undo all that remains that’s good in autism education: what remains of direct instruction and structure.

But what, exactly, are the results? In Medscape’s words:

Using a computer-based perceptual learning protocol, the research team trained a group of high-functioning adults with ASD and a healthy control group to locate three diagonal bars that were surrounded by horizontal lines. Participants were asked to identify the diagonal bars during eight daily practice sessions...  
For the first 4 days, the bars were kept in the same location on the screen. Then on days 5 through 8, they were moved to a different location. 
During the first 4 days…, speed and accuracy of learning were equal for the ASK and control participants. On days 5 through 8, after the location of the diagonal bars had been changed, the control group smoothly transitioned to learning the new location, and their performance continued to improve. 
But… those with ASD… performed poorly and were unable to improve their performance. They were never able to learn the second location as well as they had learned the first, suggesting that the repetitive drill interfered with their learning, the researchers say.
To those familiar with autism, none of this is actually earthshaking. Hyper-specificity, and difficulty with generalization, is well established in autism—and taken into account in established autism therapies. ABA-style drills, for example, deliberately vary the prompts and work towards generalization.

But, in the hands of those who are less familiar with autism, the proclamations of this article could easily be self-fulfilling—with earthshakingly bad consequences for autistic students.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Math problem of the week: traditional vs. Common Core-inspired geometry proofs

I. One of only two problems involving an actual proof in the 18 sample problems in PARCC's practice geometry test:

II. One proof among many hundreds throughout Weeks & Adkins A Course in Geometry (published in 1970):

III. Extra Credit: From similar triangles to dissimilar problems

Compare the ratios of time and effort spent making sense of the two initial statements in each problem to constructing the solicited proof.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Climate vs. Progress

A follow-up to my August post, Leadership vs. Advanced Placement

…more recognition in today's paper for the best science and STEM school in city, as opposed to the science leadership school that gets all the local buzz and national attention.

Here's now J's alma mater came out among Philadelphia public and charter high schools:

Rank: 1 in the city
overall score: 82%
achievement score: 66%
progress score: 84% 
climate score: 94%

And here's the high school that gets all the local buzz and national attention came out:

Rank: 10 in the city
overall score: 62%
achievement score: 61%
progress score 32% 
climate score: 96%

The latter is the school that, with an admissions rate rivaling that of the Ivies, can cherry pick its students like no other in the city. Back in 2012, according to the principal, it had 2,100 highly qualified applicants for 125 available slots, and each year the lines out the door for its open houses for prospective students get longer.

Selectivity, it appears, correlates with school climate, but not with academic progress.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why do some history teachers hate history?, Part III

Edweek's Greg Milo faults history textbooks as well for treating certain topics too briefly and “missing out on the many variables that matter in understanding cause and effect." He also claims that textbooks “tend to dismiss the humanity of the subject—akin to telling a story with no main character.”

In fact, plenty of history texts do consider myriads of variables that underlie particular outcomes and do tell human-centered stories. True, some of these texts were written a long time ago and/or wouldn’t pass Common Core muster. And finding the best ones means looking far beyond the dictates of the Educational Industrial Complex. Milo observes that many adults, in contrast to his high school students, do like history; perhaps we should look at what they’re reading. David David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, William L. Shirer, and Barbara Tuchman all have gigantic readerships. Also quite popular these days is Big History, which sweeps through billions of years of history, from the Big Bang to the present day.

But Milo’s answer isn’t to find more engaging texts. Instead, he wants students to somehow decide what specific topics they want to study in detail. Nor would he provide them first with a basic chronological framework in which to contextualize potential topics. Although decisions, Milo has said, require you to “consider the many variables of an event,” it’s not clear how many variables a history student with no basic chronological background knowledge in history has at his/her disposal in order to decide which historical topic to focus on.

Milo admits that any topic in history can potentially teach thinking and decision-making skills; what he doesn’t admit is that any topic in history can potentially be interesting—if taught well. Besides better textbooks, we desperately need better teachers: teachers who find history so intrinsically interesting that they know they can interest their students in all the topics that arise; not ones who are not “much into” the Middle Ages and assume that students will be bored by most topics.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Math problem of the week: traditional vs. Common Core-inspired geometry proofs

I. The only problem involving an actual proof in the 13 sample problems for New York State's Fall, 2014 Common Core-based Regents Examination in Geometry:

II. One page of hundreds involving proofs in Weeks & Adkins A Course in Geometry (published in 1970):

III. Extra Credit:

These Weeks & Adkins problems appear only 1/6 of the way into the book, before the Corresponding Angles postulate, and therefore before the proof that the sum of the measures of the angles of an triangle is 180°.

With this in mind, contrast the level of difficulty of the early-in-the-course Weeks & Adkins proofs with the sample course-final New York State Regency Exam proof.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Why do some history teachers hate history?, Part II

So, resuming where we left off in the previous post, below, what makes particular subjects within history boring?

Edweek’s Greg Milo explains that history is boring when it’s a pre-determined “chronology of topics” and students don’t have any choice over which ones to focus on. Apparently, different subtopics of history are intrinsically boring to different students. Perhaps some actually like the Middle Ages but despise the Renaissance. Some, Milo proposes, might prefer to learn about elections in Burundi rather than the fall of Rome.

Chronology, though, is the basis not just of history, but of story; and story is what most people are looking for. Who wants to read a non-chronological, theme-based version of Great Expectations, The Lord of the Rings or Gone Girl? The same goes for real-world events.

Chronology is also the basis for remembering things: it’s much easier to remember a series of events in sequence that as a bunch of isolated items. When it comes to a particular event, chronology helps you understand its significance—its historical significance, that is, along with its long and short-term causes and effects. (Most causes and effects, after all, unfold chronologically). Furthermore, following the standard chronology of a standard world history survey course, from beginning to end, ensures that students not only know about the Fall of Rome, but also about the notoriously neglected last hundred years, including the World War II and the Holocaust, about which so many students are so egregiously ignorant that some adults are trying to codify mandatory Holocaust instruction into state law.

Milo doesn’t just fault textbooks for being chronological; he faults them as well for treating certain topics too briefly; for “blowing through the specifics.” Because of this, textbooks are “missing out on the many variables that matter in understanding cause and effect” and failing to teach students how to make “reasoned decisions.” Milo also claims that textbooks “tend to dismiss the humanity of the subject—akin to telling a story with no main character.” Specific examples? Milo cites none.

In fact, plenty of textbooks do consider myriads of variables that underlie particular outcomes and do tell human-centered stories. But we've reached another cliff-hanger: stay tuned for Part III.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Why do some history teachers hate history?

There’s a lot about history that Edweek’s Greg Milo doesn’t like. He doesn’t like history books that cover 5,000 years of history, from the origins of civilization to the present day. Though he realizes it’s important for understanding the emergence of the Renaissance, he isn’t “much into” the Middle Ages. And he’s guessing that “many kids” don’t care about da Vinci, the Roaring Twenties, or “any of this history.”

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Greg Milo is a high school history teacher—or that he’s been at it for the last 13 years.

“How is learning about the Treaty of Versailles going to help me in life?” Milo’s students have asked. Somehow, Milo has conveyed to them (or failed to disabuse them of the notion) that things are worth learning only if they have this sort of practical value.

Of course, some stuff is so boring you’d only want to learn it if it's relevant to/necessary for real life functioning. For example, how to fill out a tax form; how to file an insurance claim; how to test software on iTunes; or how to adjust to the latest Microsoft Browser (which includes such fascinating revelations as: you can’t send attachments in Internet Edge; to do that you have to click on the three dots on the upper right corner and select “open with Internet Explorer”).

Compared with such narrow practical tasks, which are often ridiculously arbitrary and unenlightening in their specific details, history, for most ordinary humans, holds a great deal of interesting content: content that spans the Middle Ages to the Roaring Twenties; nay, from the origins of civilization through to the present day.

But for Milo, history is worth learning only if it strengthens students’ all-purpose thinking skills; only if it helps them make “reasoned decisions that consider the many variables of an event," “understand a decision’s consequences,” and act accordingly as “participating citizens.”

Given that students, as Milo notes, can practice such decision making skills “with any subject—not a boring one,” we’re left wondering what makes particular subjects within history boring.

This post is getting long, so I’ll end here, on this cliff hanger. Stay tuned for Why do some history teachers hate history?, Part II.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

English problem of the week: Common Core-inspired sample 5th grade reading question

I've been distracted with the sudden loss of a collaborator and friend, and so neglected to post a math problem of the week. Taking this broken routine and running with it, I'm posting my first-ever Common Core-inspired English and Language Arts problem of the week.

A 5th grade sample problem from Lumos Learning:


Extra Credit: 

 Does it matter that I omitted about 97% of the story?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Downplaying vocabulary and grammar, II

Since when does English as a Second Language instruction encompass everything but what's specific to the English Language?

In an article from last week's Education Week author Mary Ann Zehr makes the following observations:

-"English-learners need models of writing and instruction in specific genres." In particular they need to learn about the differences between "an argumentative essay, a personal narrative, and a research paper" and how to "back up their claims with facts or examples and to address counterarguments."

-"ELLs need to talk first and write later." Does this mean they should master conversational English before moving on to written compositions--the traditional sequence in foreign language instruction? No, rather, this is all about process: "it’s more effective to have students talk about a topic before they write about it."

Don't these principles apply to all students, native speakers included? Shouldn't ESL instructors be teaching kids conventions to specific to the English language rather than principles and strategies that are independent of particular languages? (I'm pretty sure, for example, that claims made in Spanish or Finnish should also backed up with facts or examples.)

If the students--as is the case with Zehr's students--are in designated ELL classes, aren't their learning priorities English grammar and vocabulary? After all, you can't write a decent argumentative essay in English if you don't know phrases like "even though," "on the other hand," and "counter-argument," along with whatever vocabulary is specific to your topic. Nor can you write a decent argument in English if you don't know the English rules for forming conditional sentences ("If X is true, then Y is true"), counterfactual sentences ("If X were true, then Y would be true") and a host of other complex structures.

Now, perhaps some of Zehr's students already have a decent English vocabulary and a host of complex English structures in their repertoires. But if so, shouldn't they have already placed out of Zehr's classes?

If Zehr's above proposals reasonably apply to all writers--once they're linguistically ready for the given writing assignment, that is--the rest of Zehr's proposals are highly questionable, again regardless of native speaker status. "Students benefit from meeting authors";  "If teenagers feel they have something to say, their writing will be much more interesting and developed"; "Teenagers are more likely to invest in writing if it’s for an authentic audience";  "Teens are more likely to complete writing assignments and write well if they see themselves as writers." All this is mushy motivational stuff--akin to introducing science students to real scientists/mathematicians and getting them to see themselves as scientists/mathematicians.

Without the basics, whether of how to put words in the correct order with the correct endings attached, or of how to structure sentences so that one flows clearly into the next, how much you have to say and how motivated you are to say it will only get you so far.

And isn't the motivation to write a function, not just of whether you've met authors and feel you have something to say and have an "authentic" audience and see yourself as a writer and, but, perhaps most importantly of all, how easily the words come to you and how fluently you can assemble them into sentences?