Magical thinking on school tech

School technology inspires a lot of magical thinking, writes Larry Cuban.

Massive Open Online Courses — free to anyone with an Internet connection — were supposed to “revolutionize” and “transform” higher education. Cuban writes. In the Gartner “hype” cycle, MOOCs have reached the “Trough of Disillusionment” in only three years.

The move to teach coding in elementary school and computer science in high school is in the “Peak of Inflated Expectations,” writes Cuban.

Britain’s national curriculum now requires “computing” in secondary schools.

In the U.S., coding and computer science “are being sold to school boards and parents as ways of teaching logic, thinking skills, as well as preparation for future jobs,” Cuban writes. He’s dubious.

Chicago Public Schools is “rolling out computer science classes at all levels” and plans to make computer science a graduation requirement, writes Scott Shackford.

Computer science educators worry about maintaining quality, he writes. “Just because every high school in the country is ordered to provide computer science classes doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be any good and that students will learn from them.”

Technology won’t save our schools, writes Austin Dannhaus on edSurge. “Education technology has seen over $3 billion of venture capital investment in the last two years. A corresponding rise in education outcomes, however, has been much more elusive. “

Teaching math the Shanghai way

Lianjie Lu, from Shanghai, teaches fractions to year 3 pupils at Fox primary school in Kensington, London.

Lianjie Lu, from Shanghai, teaches fractions to year 3 pupils at a London school. Photo: Frantzesco Kangaris/Guardian

Britain has imported math teachers from high-scoring Shanghai to demonstrate teaching techniques, reports The Guardian.  

Lilianjie Lu stands in front of 21 seven and eight-year-olds in a London classroom, struggling slightly with her English but with a winning smile on her face, as she attempts to teach them all about fractions.

The classroom has been reconfigured to resemble a Shanghai classroom. The carpet has been taken up, desks which are normally clustered in friendly groups are in straight rows, and all eyes are on Lu and her touchscreen.

. . . The class is repetitive, going over and over similar territory, stretching the children slightly further as the lesson progresses, picking up on mistakes and making sure that everyone is keeping up.

British teachers move more quickly, says Ben McMullen, deputy head at Fox school and senior lead in the local maths hub. Chinese teachers “dwell on it for what seems a long time so every single child understands exactly what’s going on.”

Lu is now asking the children what a fraction is. “If the whole is divided in to three equal parts, each part is a third of the whole,” one child explains. The other children follow suit, repeating and adapting their answer to explain the fraction written on the board.

“There’s a lot of chanting and recitation which to our English ears seems a bit formulaic,” says McMullen, “but it’s a way of embedding that understanding.”

McMullen spent two weeks observing at a Shanghai primary school in September. Math lessons are shorter there, but better, he says. “I saw better maths teaching in 35 minutes than I had ever done in an hour and ten minutes.”

In Shanghai every child of the same age is on the same page of the same text book at the same time.

. . . Children have mastered their jiujiu (times tables) back to front and inside out by the time they are eight. Classrooms are bare and text books are basic, minimal, “not that appealing” to look at, admits McMullen, but of exceptionally high quality and thoroughly researched.

Lu studied math teaching for five years at a university and teaches only math at her Shanghai elementary school. In Britain, primary teachers teach all subjects and have little training in how to teach math.

Tests don’t show how you’re special


This headteacher's letter to year 6 students at Barrowford Primary School in Lancashire has become an internet sensation

Tests don’t measure children’s “special and unique” qualities, a British head teacher wrote to six-year-olds and their parents. “The scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything.”

ADHD diagnoses surge overseas

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) diagnoses are surging overseas, as well as in the U.S. Children may be taking powerful drugs needlessly, warn researchers in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

In Australia, prescriptions for the stimulant Ritalin and other ADHD drugs rose by 72 percent between 2000 and 2011, while in Britain and the Netherlands prescriptions roughly doubled between 2003 and 2008, said the paper.

According to the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one in 11 American children aged 13-18 and one in 25 adults are affected by ADHD.

Ritalin and other drugs are appropriate only for “severe” ADHD symptoms, which occur among about 14 percent of children with the condition, the study noted. Yet 87 percent of U.S. children diagnosed with ADHD in 2010 received medications.

‘I’m too educated for my job’

Nineteen percent of U.S. workers say they’re overeducated for their jobs, notes Jordan Weissmann in The Atlantic. That’s below the average in developed countries, according to an OECD report. In Japan and the UK, 30 percent say they’re overeducated. Italy is the lowest at 13 percent.

However, the report concludes that “most workers who claim to be overqualified for their jobs are probably well suited for them” in terms of their literacy skills, Weissmann points out.

Please, lunch lady, I want some more

Many Indiana schools are struggling to meet federal guidelines for school lunches, reports the Journal and Courier. Schools must serve less meat and grains and more fruit and vegetables. Students complain the portions are too small, but they’re not hungry enough to eat the vegetables.

School districts are losing money because more students are passing up the school lunch and brown bagging.

“Kids eat with their eyes. When they saw that smaller portion, that freaked them out,” said Jennifer Rice, food service director of Lebanon Community School Corp., where the popular Salisbury steak shrunk. “I’ve been in the school district forever, and they all know me and they’ll go, ‘Mrs. Rice, we are hungry.’”

“They’re teaching our kids with this meal pattern that it’s OK to throw away,” said Lori Shofroth, Tippecanoe School Corp.’s food service director. “We did a waste study on three different schools, and there was a huge amount of waste.”

Amy Anderson, food service director for Carmel Clay Schools, said the rules have turned her into “a food cop.” Her district lost $300,000 on school lunches last year because of a drop in full-price students buying lunch. “Our kids can just wait and just hop in their BMWs and go to McDonald’s, which they’re rebuilding, making it bigger,” said Anderson.

In rural Elmwood, farm kids rejected the black bean salsa, says food service director Jay Turner. He offered to serve garbanzo beans instead. “And they gave me this look like, ‘No,’” Turner said.

Some districts are dropping out of the school lunch program or looking for ways to recoup losses as a result of the new regulations, reports the Washington Times.

My stepdaughter, who’s a nutritionist for a Boston nonprofit, has been designing school lunches. Meeting the guidelines is difficult, time-consuming and so costly her boss will not to renew the contract.

Update: Some British schools may require students to eat school meals instead of brown bagging or going out for lunch. Currently 57 percent bring their own lunch or buy something outside school. “The Government said these meals often contain too many sweets, fizzy drinks and fatty foods and the money would be better spent on healthy school lunches,” reports Sky News.

Education Secretary Michael Gove said, “More children eating school lunches and fewer having packed lunches” would result in “more children being healthier and more energetic throughout the day, and the nation, as a result, benefiting from improved brain power.”

Britain looks East for better schools

Longer school days and shorter holidays would help British students catch up with  Asian students, Education Secretary Michael Gove said at an education conference in London.

“If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday, and we compare it to the extra tuition and support that children are receiving elsewhere, then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap.”

Gove should “know how boring and soul-sapping rote-learning can be,” responds Clarissa Tam, a graduate of Singapore schools.

Does he know how the emphasis on science, maths and IT can turn students into little robots, affecting particularly those of a more creative bent?

. . . The intense pressure to excel means students often study not for the joy of succeeding, but from the fear of failing. In Singapore they have a term for it — kiasu, which means ‘scared to lose’.

And yet, the drive for excellence can be empowering, Tam writes. When she faces challenges, she recalls that “my parents, my teachers, even my schoolmates have always expected more of me than I have of myself.”

I have even, somewhat to my own disgust, come to appreciate the emphasis on the rigour of science and maths, and even on the importance of rote-learning and putting certain things to memory. At the risk of sounding like a headmistress — discipline and structure must be inculcated, whereas creativity is often innate or inborn. Here’s the thing: once you have the structure, you can pile all the artistic sensitivity you like on top, free as you please. But without any proper foundation, all creativity is for naught.

Gove’s “Look East” policy comes at a time when many Asian countries are looking West in search of “inventiveness, originality and lateral thinking,” she writes. Singapore has created arts and drama schools and is “introducing more project- and team-based work as well as teaching formats such as show-and-tell.”

Britain: Spending doesn’t improve schools

“There is no correlation at all between the level of per-pupil funding and educational outcomes,” concludes a Deloitte analysis of British schools, reports The Telegraph. The Department of Education had commissioned the study to provide support  for a “pupil premium” — extra funding — for disadvantaged students.

The report confirms what’s obvious to parents, editorializes The Telegraph: “Ethos is what matters most – and you can’t buy a good ethos. Head teachers who turn around a school are utterly priceless, in every way.”

We’d say “culture” instead of  “ethos” and “principal” for “head teacher.”

There’s evidence that a well-run school will use extra funds to improve, going from good to very good or very good to excellent. But more money doesn’t help if the school lacks strong leadership.

The joy of testing

Rigorous exams motivate students and show who needs more help, said Michael Gove, Britain’s secretary of state for education, in an erudite speech that starts by praising the teaching of “French lesbian poetry.”

Now some people will say that if I believe in the adventure of learning and the joy of discovery,  how can I possibly be a fan of testing and examining? It’s like professing a love of cookery – hymning the beauty of perfectly baked souffles or rhapsodising over richly unguent risottos – and then saying the most important thing about food is checking the calorie count in every mouthful. Isn’t an obsession with measurement the enemy of enjoyment, the desire to assess and examine the death of learning for its own sake?

Gove says he understands the argument. Then he refutes it.

. . . Firstly, exams matter because motivation matters. Humans are hard-wired to seek out challenges. . . . If we know tests are rigorous, and they require application to pass, then the experience of clearing a hurdle we once considered too high spurs us on to further endeavours and deeper learning.

. . . Exams show those who have not mastered certain skills or absorbed specific knowledge what more they need to practice and which areas they need to work on.

For all these reasons exams pitched at a level which all can easily pass are worse than no exams at all. Unless there is stretch in the specification, and application is required to succeed, there will be no motivation, no satisfaction and no support for those who need it.

The fourth reason exams matter is that they ensure there is a solid understanding of foundations before further learning starts.

Gove cited research by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, who says Gove got the science right, but not necessarily the policy.

People “enjoy mental activity that is successful,” such as solving puzzles, Willingham writes. However, it’s not clear students will be motivated to work hard enough to pass challenging exams. They could conclude it’s hopeless and give up.

Gove is right about the need for background knowledge, but went astray by using “memorisation,” Willingham writes. That inspired the Guardian to declare Gove is advocating rote learning.

(Gove) emphasized that exam preparation should not mean a dull drilling of facts, but rather should happen through “entertaining narratives in history, striking practical work in science and unveiling hidden patterns in maths.”

But whatever Gove may say about rich content and critical thinking, the teachers who most need to improve probably won’t listen, Willingham warns. In the U.S., many teachers felt pressured by No Child Left Behind to teach to the test and cram in facts.

Teachers believed it was necessary because (1) they were uncertain that their old lesson plans would leave kids with the factual knowledge base to pass the test; or (2) they thought that their students entered the class so far behind that extreme measures were necessary to get them to the point of passing; or (3) they thought that the test was narrow or poorly designed and would not capture the learning that their old set of lesson plans brought to kids; or (4) some combination of these factors.

So pointing out that exam prep and memorization of facts is bad practice will probably not be enough.

Testing is unfair to most students, writes Peter DeWitt on Ed Week.  Gove’s call for exams that can’t be passed easily is “not very sporting.”

A Brit’s view of U.S. college culture

British college students who study abroad in the U.S. should expect a different college culture, writes Sophie Pitman in The Telegraph.

As an undergrad in Britain, Pitman was taught to argue with classmates, she writes.

Regardless of each student’s genuine beliefs, it was seen as beneficial to challenge, question, and refine one another’s interpretations. Discord was expected, and not taken as personal. I started out in America with the same approach, disagreeing with my classmates vocally. I was met with blank stares and scowls, and quickly learnt that discussions here are more cordial and positive.

. . . In America, the customer is always king – even in the classroom. In my humble opinion, American students act as consumers and demand more from their tuition fees than their British counterparts. Expect to be asked by your professors for formal written feedback during or at the end of term, and you might be able to access former students’ evaluations of your prospective tutor when picking classes. I have even witnessed students asking for regrades when they didn’t like their grade – something I was initially shocked by.

She also warns her Brits to expect less alcohol — and no wine parties with the prof — and more carbohydrates.