Archive for ‘learning’

October 17, 2014

The booming test prep industry offers questionable value

by Grace

20141016.COCTestPrepCentersByState1

…The number of test prep centers in the U.S. more than doubled to 11,000 from 1998 to 2012, the last year for which Census data are available.

There’s a multibillion-dollar market for tutoring services in the U.S., with franchises such as Kumon and big chains including Kaplan and Princeton Review. The test prep industry promises to help students score better on everything from the SAT to Advanced Placement courses to med school entrance exams.

Strictly speaking, Kumon and similar centers do not focus on test preparation.

Washington DC, New Jersey, Hawaii, New York, and California lead in locations with the highest concentrations of tutoring establishments, as shown by the chart on the right.

All the money and effort devoted to commercial test preparation seems to have a relatively low payout.

… Contrary to the claims made by many test preparation providers of large increases of 100 points or more on the SAT, research suggests that average gains are more in the neighborhood of 30 points….

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Patrick Clark, “The Test Prep Industry Is Booming”, Businessweek.com, October 08, 2014.

October 10, 2014

A message to education reformers:  memorization and repetition are still needed

by Grace

Amid the controversy of how Common Core Standards are changing American K-12 math education, engineering professor Barbara Oakley argues that the value of memorization and practice continues to be downplayed.

Common Core Standards “propose that in mathematics, students should gain equal facility in conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application”.  But implementation of CCS does not always follow those guidelines.

The devil, of course, lies in the details of implementation. In the current educational climate, memorization and repetition in the STEM disciplines (as opposed to in the study of language or music), are often seen as demeaning and a waste of time for students and teachers alike. Many teachers have long been taught that conceptual understanding in STEM trumps everything else. And indeed, it’s easier for teachers to induce students to discuss a mathematical subject (which, if done properly, can do much to help promote understanding) than it is for that teacher to tediously grade math homework. What this all means is that, despite the fact that procedural skills and fluency, along with application, are supposed to be given equal emphasis with conceptual understanding, all too often it doesn’t happen. Imparting a conceptual understanding reigns supreme—especially during precious class time.

The problem with focusing relentlessly on understanding is that math and science students can often grasp essentials of an important idea, but this understanding can quickly slip away without consolidation through practice and repetition. Worse, students often believe they understand something when, in fact, they don’t. By championing the importance of understanding, teachers can inadvertently set their students up for failure as those students blunder in illusions of competence. As one (failing) engineering student recently told me: “I just don’t see how I could have done so poorly. I understood it when you taught it in class.” My student may have thought he’d understood it at the time, and perhaps he did, but he’d never practiced using the concept to truly internalize it. He had not developed any kind of procedural fluency or ability to apply what he thought he understood.

I’ve read similar reports about how CCS continues to prioritize understanding at the expense of fluency.  My experience several years ago was that teachers used to focus heavily on understanding, and I was told not to be concerned when my child had not mastered basic math facts because it was more important that she understand the concepts.  Meanwhile she was falling behind in all aspects of learning.  Is this still common?

Explaining and discussing alone do not lead to full understanding and mastery.

In the years since I received my doctorate, thousands of students have swept through my classrooms—students who have been reared in elementary school and high school to believe that understanding math through active discussion is the talisman of learning. If you can explain what you’ve learned to others, perhaps drawing them a picture, the thinking goes, you must
understand it.

Chunking is important in analyzing and reacting to new learning situations.

Chunking was originally conceptualized in the groundbreaking work of Herbert Simon in his analysis of chess—chunks were envisioned as the varying neural counterparts of different chess patterns. Gradually, neuroscientists came to realize that experts such as chess grand masters are experts because they have stored thousands of chunks of knowledge about their area of expertise in their long-term memory. Chess masters, for example, can recall tens of thousands of different chess patterns. Whatever the discipline, experts can call up to consciousness one or several of these well-knit-together, chunked neural subroutines to analyze and react to a new learning situation. This level of true understanding, and ability to use that understanding in new situations, comes only with the kind of rigor and familiarity that repetition, memorization, and practice can foster.

Gifted students and experts are often able to quickly reason their way into algorithms when solving math problems, arguably because of their deep understanding.  But I don’t think most students find that to be a good approach in the typical learning process, as it slows them down as they are practicing to gain both fluency and understanding.  On the other hand, I’m sure many students simply memorize with no understanding, thereby failing to build the foundation for later math success.

Of course both understanding and fluency are important, and in the real world the critical questions are usually:  Can you do it?  Can you do it quickly?

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Barabara Oakley, “How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math”, Nautilus, October 2, 2014.

October 6, 2014

Schools should acknowledge that genes influence IQ

by Grace

Putting genetics and education in the same sentence is a modern taboo.

Kathryn Asbury, co-author with behavioral geneticists Robert Plomin of G is for Genes: The Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement made this point when she wrote “Genes do influence children, and acknowledging that can make schools better” last year.

Recent research by Professor Plomin “shows genes are more important than we like to think”.  Longitudinal adoption studies in particular show parents have much less influence than some might believe.

… At one time people thought family members were similar because of the environment, but it turns out that the answer — in psychopathology or personality, and in cognition post-adolescence — the answer is that it’s all genetic! What runs in families is genetic!’

It’s not really “all” genetic, and Plomin’s hyperbole is not helpful.  But IQ and other traits do correlate closely with birth parents, and “tiger-mothering” by adoptive parents makes very little difference in the long term.

It’s another counterintuitive mind-melt. The environment, all that maths coaching and tiger-mothering, can maybe have an effect on a kid’s IQ when he’s young — bump him up a few notches. But as he gets older, his IQ will become ever more closely correlated with that of his blood relatives.

Plomin offers a theory that would explain why IQ moves closer to biological origins over time.

‘… ‘We don’t know, but it’s probable that little early genetic differences become bigger and bigger as you go through life creating environments correlated with your genotype.’ I must look baffled. ‘The simplest way of saying this is that bright kids read more, they hang out with kids who read more.’

Our environment shapes our development, but it’s also true that our genes shape our environment.  This reminds me of the finding that parents read more to their daughters than to their sons.  Perhaps part of the reason is due to innate differences between the genders, and parents find the “cost” of reading to a squirming child higher than to a calmer one.

According to Plomin, educators “especially don’t want to hear that IQ is highly heritable”.  Perhaps because they believe this lessens the value of what teachers do in the classroom and what social services schools push to provide.  And then there’s the fear of “a segregated world, children with low IQs condemned from birth to clean the loos”.

Knowing and accepting heritability of certain traits can aid in tailoring teaching to help students with specific difficulties.

‘Oh, I go to an education meeting and this is all I get,’ Plomin says, showing the first sign of mild exasperation. ‘They think it’s just terrible because we’re going to start labelling kids from really young. But kids label each other already — they know who’s sporty, who’s bright. And if we can read a kid’s genome, we can predict and prevent disease. If we can read their DNA, we can tailor the teaching to help a kid with learning difficulties. Surely it’s worse,’ he says, ‘to just sit in a classroom and sink, unable to read because no one has identified that you might have trouble? At least consider that it’s not an open-and-shut case.’

Many aspects of good teaching apply to the general population of students, but some particular instructional strategies work better for particular types of students.

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Kathryn Asbury. “Genes do influence children, and acknowledging that can make schools better”, The Spectator, October 17, 2013.

Mary Wakefield, “Revealed: how exam results owe more to genes than teaching”, The Spectator, July 27, 2013.

RELATED:  Dan Hurley, “Can You Make Yourself Smarter?”, New York Times,  April 18, 2012.

September 25, 2014

Seven myths of education are hobbling education reform

by Grace

Author Daisy Christodoulou argues that the “chief barriers to effective school reform are not the usual accused: bad teacher unions, low teacher quality, burdensome government dictates”, but instead are the Seven Myths about Education:

1 – Facts prevent understanding
2 – Teacher-led instruction is passive
3 – The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
4 – You can always just look it up
5 – We should teach transferable skills
6 – Projects and activities are the best way to learn
7 – Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. points out the relevance of these myths today, with the nationwide embrace of Common Core Standards that comes after the failure of No Child Left Behind reform.

Ms. Christodoulou’s book indirectly explains these tragic, unintended consequences of NCLB, especially the poor results in reading. It was primarily the way that educators responded to the accountability provisions of NCLB that induced the failure. American educators, dutifully following the seven myths, regard reading as a skill that could be employed without relevant knowledge; in preparation for the tests, they spent many wasted school days on ad hoc content and instruction in “strategies.” If educators had been less captivated by anti-knowledge myths, they could have met the requirements of NCLB, and made adequate yearly progress for all groups. The failure was not in the law but in the myths.

While Hirsch focuses most on reading skills and how CCS employ ‘the same superficial, content-indifferent activities, given new labels like “text complexity” and “reading strategies”‘, the entire list of myths is in play to doom the latest reform efforts.

… If the Common Core standards fail as NCLB did, it will not be because the standards themselves are defective. It will be because our schools are completely dominated by the seven myths analyzed by Daisy Christodoulou….

Despite some rhetoric to the contrary, CCS implementation continues the educational establishment’s crusade against “knowing things” and “being taught things”.  Instead, in accordance with the seven myths it downplays outside knowledge and encourages a “discovery-oriented” approach instead of direct instruction.

———

E. D. Hirsch, Jr.,  “A Game-Changing Education Book from England”, Huffington Post, 06/27/2013.

September 11, 2014

Homeschool is more popular than private school in this state

by Grace

In North Carolina, the number of homeschoolers has now surpassed the number of students attending private schools.

That statistic may seem shocking if you’ve been a stranger to the growth of the homeschooling movement, which has rapidly increased in recent decades.

In 1973, there were approximately 13,000 children, ages 5 to 17, being homeschooled in the United States. But according to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of the 2011-2012 school year, that number has grown to almost 1.8 million or approximately 3.4 percent of the school age population. Other sources report numbers well over 2 million.

Homeschooling has grown 27% over the last two years in North Carolina.

Those are pretty impressive numbers for a movement considered “fringe” not that long ago and that has only been legal in all 50 states since 1996.

The top three reasons parents give for homeschooling their children:

A concern about environment of other schools
A desire to provide moral instruction
A dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools

Dissatisfaction with Common Core may be fueling the growth in homeschooling.

And my guess is when the figures are reported related to the past two years you’ll see the number of parents citing “dissatisfaction with academic instruction” spike with the growing uprising against Common Core and national standards. Those who run local homeschooling groups in North Carolina say Common Core is a big factor.

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Genevieve Wood, “In One State, More Children Homeschool Than Attend Private Schools. Why That Shouldn’t Shock You.”, The Daily Signal, September 08, 2014.

August 7, 2014

Teen Jeopardy least favorite categories

by Grace

Does it surprise you that these are the last two categories chosen by the contestants in a recent Teen Jeopardy game?

20140729.COCTeenJeopardy1
Yeah, me neither.  Pro Sports Teams and Outdoors don’t strike me as the first choices a typical nerdy teen would select, especially since the other categories were The Presidency, The Sound Of Words, Fictional Characters, and Indoors.

Here are the actual questions for the sports category.

For 200:
Of the four Miami pro sports teams, it’s the one team name that’s NOT an animal.
For 400:
They’re the Southeastern NFL team whose logo’s seen here
For 600:
Of pro teams w/ Boston in their names, it’s won more championships than all the others.
For 800:
The two NHL teams based in national capital cities are the Washington Capitals & them.
For 1000:
The Natl. Hot Dog & Sausage Council says this team’s Miller Park is MLB’s only park to sell more sausages than hot dogs.

ADDED:  Link to the answers

Thanks to Redditor DiagnosisMoyder for this photo.

Tags:
July 23, 2014

Sarah Lawrence College will rate itself on the value it provides students

by Grace

Sarah Lawrence College has developed a way to assess the value it offers its students.

… The faculty came up with six abilities they think every Sarah Lawrence graduate should have….

  1. Ability to think analytically about the material.
  2. Ability to express ideas effectively through written communication.
  3. Ability to exchange ideas effectively through oral communication.
  4. Ability to bring innovation to the work.
  5. Ability to envisage and carry through a project independently, with appropriate guidance.
  6. Ability to accept and act on critique to improve work.

These measures serve as an antidote to the Obama administration’s upcoming rating system, which will measure things like cost, graduation rates, and salaries of graduates.  Obama’s new system has generated controversy, particularly since poor scores could mean the loss of federal financial aid.

Sarah Lawrence developed a “web-based assessment platform, designed to measure student performance against these critical abilities”.  Advisors meet regularly with students to evaluate their progress.

20140718.COCSarahLawrenceCriticalAbilities
Students can learn if they’re getting “their money’s worth”.

That’s a different measure of the value of an education than, say, student loan debt or earnings after graduation — the sorts of things the Obama administration is considering as part of its ratings plan. Students and parents are right to ask if they’re getting their money’s worth, says the college’s president, Karen Lawrence. After financial aid, the average cost of a Sarah Lawrence education is almost $43,000 a year.

“People are worried about cost,” Lawrence says. “We understand that.”

And they’re worried about getting jobs after graduation. But she says the abilities that the new assessment measures—critical thinking and innovation and collaboration—are the same ones employers say they’re looking for.

I have a feeling every Sarah Lawrence graduate will be rated highly.

The idea behind Sarah Lawrence’s assessment is laudable, but I must say I’m a bit skeptical about the way they measure student performance.  Shouldn’t they have an objective third party doing the assessment?

———

Amy Scott, “What do students actually learn in college?”, Marketplace, April 22, 2014.

July 10, 2014

The rise and fall of sentence diagramming

by Grace

The sentence diagramming method once popular in American public schools was developed in the 1870s.

20140708.COCSentenceDiagramGeneric1

For a long time, sentence diagramming flourished throughout the American school system, and, despite being condemned as a useless waste of time in the 1970s, it still persists in many schools. Indeed, it spread well beyond the USA, and so a very similar system is taught in many European countries (though not, alas, in the United Kingdom). For example, schools in the Czech Republic teach sentence diagramming so successfully that researchers are investigating the possibility of including school children’s analyses in a working tree-bank of analyzed sentences.

I learned sentence diagramming when I attended Catholic elementary school, but I doubt any local schools are using it today.

Besides teaching grammar in a fun way (at least for some), diagramming sentences may offer the benefit of teaching how to pull clarity from the chaos”.

What Diagramming Teaches Us

When Joseph R. Mallon Jr. bumps up against a complex problem, he thinks back to a lesson he learned in high school from the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.

The Philadelphia-area school’s Catholic nuns taught him the art of diagramming a sentence. Once all the parts of speech lined up, Mallon pulled clarity from the chaos. It’s a process he uses today to tackle tough issues as chief executive and chairman of Measurement Specialties Inc.

“Sit down quietly. Take (the issue) apart into its component parts. Make sure all the components fit together well. They’ve got to be well chosen, fit together and make sense. There are few (business) problems that can’t be solved that way, as dire as it might seem,” Mallon said. “Sentence diagramming is one of the best analytical techniques I ever learned.”

Investor’s Business Daily
17 October 2000

An online parser applied to one of my sentences generated this diagram:

20140708.COCSentenceDiagram1A

Even with my foggy understanding, I can see how diagramming helps in learning parts of speech and syntax.  The online tool is interactive, and provides parts of speech terminology for every word in the sentence.  It makes some mistakes, but it looks like a neat tool to use for reviewing sentence structure.  Unfortunately it does not accept pasted text.

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Richard Hudson, “A Brief History of Diagramming Sentences”, Slate, January 2, 2014.

July 4, 2014

Executive function skills suffer when kids are over-scheduled

by Grace

The more time children spend in structured, parent-guided activities, the worse their ability to work productively towards self-directed goals.

Unsupervised playtime may benefit the development of executive function.

Unscheduled, unsupervised, playtime is one of the most valuable educational opportunities we give our children. It is fertile ground; the place where children strengthen social bonds, build emotional maturity, develop cognitive skills, and shore up their physical health. The value of free play,  daydreamingrisk-taking, and independent discovery have been much in the news this year, and a new study by psychologists at the University of Colorado reveals just how important these activities are in the development of children’s executive functioning.

Executive function is a broad term for cognitive skills such as organization, long-term planning, self-regulation, task initiation, and the ability to switch between activities. It is a vital part of school preparedness and has long been accepted as a powerful predictor of academic performance and other positive life outcomes such as health and wealth. The focus of this study is “self-directed executive function,” or the ability to generate personal goals and determine how to achieve them on a practical level. The power of self-direction is an underrated and invaluable skill that allows students to act productively in order to achieve their own goals.

This may help explain the recent rise in diagnosed ADHD cases.  The structured lives of our children — including play dates, day care, and summer camp — is quite different from the mostly unscheduled days of youngsters growing up even 20 years ago.  Could it be that they’re missing out on an important developmental process?

Starting at about age seven or eight I spent lots of time unsupervised by adults, although there were usually older kids around.  During the summer I kept busy riding my bike, going to the library, playing with Barbie dolls, swimming at the neighborhood pool, hanging out with friends, watching TV, and doing other similar self-directed activities.

Ann Althouse had a similar childhood.

When I was a kid, virtually all time not spent in school or sleeping and eating was free play time. Nobody ever spoke of “executive function” or projected developmental improvements of any kind….

———

Jessica Lahey, “Why Free Play Is the Best Summer School”, The Atlantic, June 20, 2014.

June 27, 2014

Even in affluent areas, many high school graduates are not ready for college

by Grace

Even in one of the most prosperous and highly educated counties in the United States, less than half of high school graduates are ready for college.

Only 48% of Westchester County high school graduates are prepared to do college-level work.  This measure is based on students scoring “at least 75 on their English Regents exam and at least 80 on a math Regents exam”.

For my local high school, located in Westchester County, 64% of graduates are considered college ready.  This is a school district that spends about $25,000 per student each year and enjoys a student/teacher ratio of 14:1.

Using AP participation figures, US News determined that my local high school has a College Readiness Index of 44.5

On a national basis “SAT scores indicate ‘most freshmen aren’t academically prepared for college'”, so it appears this problem is not limited to high schools near me.

Are these college readiness numbers surprising?  Should they be higher, given the resources being devoted to education?  Or is it unrealistic to expect higher percentages of college-ready high school graduates, even in some of the most affluent areas of the country?

Some possible reasons for the low number of high school graduates who are prepared to do college-level work:

  1. The measures are flawed and do not give an accurate representation.
  2. Teaching and/or curriculum is mediocre, or worse.
  3. Schools do no place sufficient focus on academic goals, specifically on preparing students for college.
  4. We’re not spending enough on education.
  5. The money we spend on education is used inefficiently.
  6. No matter the demographics and despite how much a school tries, a certain percentage of high school graduates will never be ready for college work.
  7. “Kids these days.”
  8. Parents are not doing enough to support their children’s education.

I dismiss the first reason listed, having some familiarity with the New York State tests used to measure college readiness.  A high school student on the college-prep track should definitely be able to meet the scores required.  These tests are notoriously easy and/or graded on a very forgiving curve.

Achievement levels do not correlate closely with money spent on education, so I cannot see #4 being an important reason.

The rest of the listed reasons probably play some role in creating the disappointingly low college-readiness figures.  In theory, schools have the most control over remedying reasons 2, 3, and 5.  In practice, most experiments innovations that schools implement only seem to make things worse.

———

Gary Stern and Dwight Worley, “Local high school grads not up to more ambitious state goals”, The Journal News, June 23, 2014.

Graduation Rate Data – June 23, 2014, New York State Education Department

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