Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Power of Undergraduate Education

It's been a difficult week cleaning out my office and consigning the tangible elements of my career to the recycle bin. The task of deciding which books to keep, which to pass along to colleagues and which to throw away is not an easy one. I probably have close to 500 books on my shelves dating back to my undergraduate days in the late 60s and early 70s.

Deciding what to do with each book was absolutely impossible until I came up with an effective plan. Each book would be judged as follows. The books I would save and take home would be the ones that had impacted my professional life, my thinking and educational values the most. The second category would be those books that my colleagues or replacement might want. The third group comprised those destined for the recycle bin while the fourth and last group were the books my daughter wanted.

After three days of sorting, one spent with my daughter Marie, I have pretty well consigned every book to one of the groups described above. The pile of books that have touched my life the most are almost all books that I read as an undergraduate student. Books by Bruner, Dewey, Peters, DeBono, Whitehead to name a few. Looking back it seems remarkable that so few have had the same deep influence on educational values and core ideas as these great masters. Carol Dweck and Jo Boaler have been great influences along the way but it was these great writers who introduced me to the wonders of teaching in my undergraduate education who had he most profound affect on the way I think about teaching and teachers education.

The second group of books contain books all about teaching math, science and engineering; books that contain great ideas and activities for helping children at the K - 6 level learn to enjoy and succeed mathematically and scientifically.

By far the largest selection of books have filled a very large recycling bin to overflowing and contain books of several types. There are the what I would call the "fleeting fad" type of book while others are earlier editions of current books. Many were sent t me by publishers hoping  I would adopt the for my courses.

Undergraduate education today is promoted aggressively as a route to a better job, career preparation
and a pathway to fame and fortune in some instances. But the true value of undergraduate education is teaching students to be constructive and free thinkers; to develop cognitive and social values and a sense of who one is as an individual. Regardless of where I have worked in different parts of the world, the things I learned as an undergraduate have remained as the fundamental core of my beliefs.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

When You can't Hear the Song for the Singer

There's a line in my current favorite song, Black Muddy River,  that goes "When you can't hear the song for the singer". The song, written by Robert Hunter,  is sung by Bruce Hornsby, a quite unassuming "pop star" by current standards. His piano playing is quite remarkable and, although he didn't write the song, I find myself listening to the words and instrumentation intently. I hear every nuance in his voice, every note and cadence in the instrumental accompaniment. This is not always true. When I listen to Prince, or watch Celtic Women video I am preoccupied by the performance and the performer and not the song  With Prince it is his entire aura of who he is and what he stands for. His facial expressions and gyrations. I just can't hear the song for the singer. With the Celtic Women videos the sheer size and over production of the performance overtakes the actual words and their meaning. It's as if the song becomes a vehicle for everything else going on so you can;t really listen to it. The beauty of the Celtic women performers, the striking makeup on the drummers and the outside locations at castles and other notable venues.

I find  so much of educational "innovation" and "advancement" to be like this. You cant grasp or come to terms with what is being said because of who is presenting it. Much of current research is presented through emotional contexts based on  individual's unique experiences. It becomes difficult to grasp a theory of some sort that can become food for thought and reflection. Angela Lee Duckworth's Ted talk on the concept of grit in the classroom is a classic example. There are many others who shout about bullying, and dress codes, and all sorts of peripheral things that have little bearing on what education is all about.

The same is true inn the current political arena where the participants themselves become the object of the vote and not the idea and theories for which they stand. For example it's virtually impossible to determine exactly what Donald Trump stands for because his persona and delivery style far outweigh
what he really means.We seem to be becoming a nation of performers who know how to perform but but who's performances completely obscure the songs they are trying to sing..     

Monday, May 9, 2016

Testing is not the way to Improve Education

It's absolutely remarkable watching the British Government's current attempts to destroy on of the best education systems in the world. Having already backed down on their lunatic plans to turn every school in the country into an "Academy", they now have come out with a standardized reading tests that appears to have the potential to destroy every student's self confidence according to this TES article  The  incredible pressure put on young children through this relentless regime of testing by a government that has minimal educational expertise  outlined in this BBC article is  absolutely staggering.  There was even a protest by parents who kept their children home for the day because of the testing. And all the time the British Government is clamoring for more and more rigor Finland lets children play more and still outscores the UK in global tests.  In fact there are so many articles on the dissatisfaction of the over-testing of children and other government mismanagement of education issues in the UK that there is almost an entire BBC webpage devoted to articles about it.

  Thankfully in many States such as New York the "Opt-out" movement  is growing as people come to realize there is little benefit to children from constantly testing them. Assess, yes, test, no.

So why do Governments feel the need to test so much. In he case of the UK there is a terrible lack of trust of teachers on the part of the national government. They see education as "economic investment" and global competition first as opposed to helping children become the best they can be by whatever yardstick success as a human is measured. This is an incredibly complex issue, of course, but you simply cannot raise standards by raising the difficulty level of tests. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Schools in Finland

"In Finland the teachers are the entrepreneurs" is one of many interesting comments in this fascinating article from the Wall Street Journal.  The article is really well written because it describes in pretty good detail why the Finnish system produces such bright, well educated students. It describes the nature of the curriculum, the requirements to be a teacher in Finland as well as the government support for education, especially reading.

It also points out the many reasons why such a system would probably not work in the US which is rather sad and depressing. For example the Finnish school population, they say,  is much more homogeneous in terms of languages spoken. I presume this means that it is easier to teach students who are all the same!  Parents also take a much more hands-off approach when it comes to  raising their children from tying their shoe laces to college selection.  Things such as this are the reason why making international comparisons based on a single set of test scores are so difficult to analyze and interpret.Life in Finland is very  different from life in the US in every respect imaginable.  Tests such as TIMMS have long praised the math performance of students in Singapore but make no mention of the deplorable situation in that country where all students with disabilities such as Down Syndrome are required to attend special schools.

Nonetheless there is much to be learned from the schools in Finland, something Bernie Sanders has been advocating for for some time. Perhaps it's time to abandon the standards-based movement that, I think, has been responsible for much of the decline of student performance and happiness and give power back to well trained teachers so that they can, once again, teach students and not teach standards or text books.

Here's a wonderful short video by Michael Moore that gives us a glimpse of schools in Finland. Notice the words of the math teacher in particular.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

I'm Counting on You.

OK, before you read any further start counting by 5s. You can stop when you get to 50. Done that? Did you go 5, 10, 15, 20 etc? Yes you probably did.

Now, before you read any further count by 5s starting at 3.

OK, done that? What you probably did, if you are representative of 95 percent of the population is that you started off really slowly and hesitantly
3 + 5 is 8 + 5 is 13 + 5 is 18 and then, you probably went 23,28, 33,38,43,48 gathering speed as you went.

To check try counting by 5s starting at 7. Chances re you stumbled to begin with until you saw the pattern. Math is the Science of Pattern and once you see the pattern you are a long way to having a meaningful understanding of what you are doing.

Try the same thing with fractions. Count by halves starting at 0. Try it before reading any further.   Now start counting by halves beginning at a quarter. It's just the same, once you see the pattern everything gets easier.

So why not try it with decimals. Count by .3 starting at 0. Now count by .3 starting at .5. A little bit more tricky but it works. As soon a you see the pattern you can reel the numbers off as fast as you can speak.

This is the sort of thing we should be doing with students and adults to combat the paralyzing fear or hatred of maths that is so pervasive in the US. We are hampered, held back and disabled  by the debilitating phrase of "I'm no good at math" spoken aloud every day by so many people in so many places with large and small audiences by people of all ages and genders. Even the phrase "do the math" sounds like a  threat sometimes. No-one ever says "do the reading" and no one ever says, out loud, "I'm no good at reading" as described in this very eloquent Washington Post piece
sent to me recently by Erik, my wonderful engineer son-in-law.

Everyone can do maths if they focus on understand it and don't just memorize isolated facts to get scores on tests. Maths is made to be understood and played with; just like language.    

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Future is in Everything?

It's funny but it's not until  one is diagnosed with a terminal illness that one suddenly becomes acutely aware of how different perspectives come into play in one's life.

One such difference I've noticed recently is just how much the activities and thoughts that comprise our daily lives are focused on the future: I need to go shopping so I can eat later today and for the rest of the week; I need to publish an article to remain tenured; I need to brush my teeth so they will remain healthy; I need to not smoke so that I will live for ever (if only I had heeded this one 50 years ago). The list goes on. We paint our houses to protect them from the ravages of rain, we change the oil in our cars to keep them running. Of course, painting a house makes it look nice and choosing a car you like gives one a sense of pleasure. But when you stop and think and give everything a percentage of now/present or future it always seems the future part comes out way ahead, almost 90% it seems sometimes.

 Everything except listening to music. Music is for the present. I listen  mostly to  Bruce Hornsby or Scars on 45. If you really, really listen to the music; to the voices and the instrumentation; the feelings and emotions being conveyed you are 100% in the present. There is nothing in the music you are listening to that is touched by, or touches, the future. Pure hedonism perhaps, but in the best possible way.

So I started thinking about this related to elementary school math. So often we call elementary school "preparation for the future" or :preparation for middle school". This is all wrong. Elementary school is for a child in the present, in the now, for them as children. For example, when we teach a set of multiplication facts we should help the student focus on the wonderful  patterns made by the facts, the relationship between the numbers, what multiplication means and how cool it is to have a tool that can help you work  out what 12 fifteens are.if we do this the student will remember the facts. The 'future' component of the activity is the result of being in the "present" while being involved in it.

Elementary school should be a celebration of what it means to be young, to be curious about the world, to make mistakes and have conceptions of things that are outrageous and wild until the reality of what they really are sets in. The British Government currently fails to see this where they see education as "economic investment". Their push for turning all public schools into private academies is as misguided as constantly testing children.  We re thankfully beginning to see that this focus on testing in US schools is seriously misguided.

I remember teaching a graduate course to teachers in a school in Monterrey in Mexico 30 years ago where children were treated as children. They were expected to behave and think like children  and not as mini-adults. Childhood was celebrated for what it was, a time of growing, learning,discovering and just being a kid.


Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Hot Moments or Difficult Discussions?

Sometimes the emails I receive at work make me wonder what is happening to the world of education. It's probably always been this way  but the use of sensationalism to grab people's attention seems much more in one's face these days; probably because of the use of social and mass media.

Today I was invited to register for an on-line seminar on the topic of "hot moments in the classroom"  presented by Dr. Tasha Souza of Boise State University. For only $247 I can join in and there is a "100% satisfaction is guaranteed".  Just for fun, I google-imaged "hot moments"  and then I google-imaged "difficult discussions" the other part of the seminar title. When you compare the two sets of results it becomes fairly clear why the term 'hot moments' was chosen; obviously an effort to boost the number of people shelling out $247.

I'm probably getting old and cynical, or maybe I already am, but this type of sensationalism is not what is going to help improve the educational experience for our students. For me, it is denigrating to use the term to describe what the author herself says are clearly important times during the educative process. Being able to handle different points of view between 20 or so adults in a classroom can be a tricky thing but a hot moment it is not. When difficult topics are discussed with open minds then we all can learn. When we all adopt and develop growth mindset skills and dispositions we are all able to develop the way we think, feel, sense and learn.

Theories such as Carol Dweck's Mindset theory are well research, developed and improved upon over time unlike the sensationalist ideas such as Souza's "hot moments" and Angela Lee Duckworth's idea of grit..