Children aren’t sponges

Small children aren’t “sponges” soaking up information, writes Dan Willingham on Real Clear Education. “Kids don’t learn important information that’s right in front of them, unless an adult is actively teaching them,” a recent study (Butler & Markman, 2014) shows.

Children aged 4-5 were shown a novel object and were told that it was a “spoodle.” Would they figure out the spoodle is magnetic?

In the pedagogical condition, the experimenter said “Look, watch this” and used the spoodle to pick up paperclips. In the intentional condition, the experimenter used the spoodle to pick up paperclips, but did not request the child’s attention or make eye contact. In the accidental condition, the experimenter feigned accidentally dropping the spoodle on the clips. In all of the conditions, the experimenter held the spoodle with the paper clips clinging to it and said “wow!”

Next, the child was presented 16 objects and was asked to determine which were spoodles. Half were identical to the original spoodle, and half were another color. In addition, half of each color were magnetic and half were not.

Children knew the spoodle had to be magnetic only if the adult had drawn attention to the spoodle’s magnetism. Observing the magnetic properties in the “intentional” or “accidental” experiments wasn’t enough. Those kids picked the spoodle by color.

Even in an environment rich in experiences, “little sponges” need to be taught, Willingham concludes. “Small differences in parenting may have important consequences for children’s learning.”

Why ‘just Google it’ doesn’t work

“Knowing things is hopelessly twentieth century,” says Justin Webb, a British TV journalist. “Everything you need to know – things you may previously have memorised from books – is (or soon will be) instantly available on a handheld device in your pocket.”

Google is no substitute for learning things by heart, argues Toby Young, founder of the West London Free School, in a Telegraph blog.

The less we know, the more we have to use working memory to search for information and make sense of it, he writes. Our working memory can run out of space.

The “just Google it” approach also neglects the knowledge a child needs to search accurately, Young writes.

“Searchers need to have an idea what they are looking for,” writes Libby Purves in a Times column.

A great paradox is that the pre-Internet generation may prove to be uniquely privileged, because having learnt facts once makes us diabolically efficient Internet searchers.

Even an accurate search is useless if the searcher doesn’t know enough to understand the information retrieved, Young writes.

For instance, if you Google “space station” the Wikipedia entry you pull up is only comprehensible if you already know a bit about “low Earth orbit”, “propulsion”, “research platforms”, etc. The child could perform further searches to plug these gaps, but the same problem will just recur, with him or her being condemned to carry on Googling for ever.

Knowledge is the power to learn  more.

“Research on the necessity of background knowledge for reading comprehension is decisive and uncontroversial” — and widely ignored, writes Mark Bauerlein.

 

Learn like a baby

Researchers are working on pills that enable learning by returning brain chemistry to “critical periods” of development, writes Olga Khazan in The Atlantic. Young children with rapidly growing brains can learn new skills more quickly than adults.

The goal is to help people with developmental disorders or brain injury in adulthood.

What do students learn in college?

Massachusetts is leading a nine-state effort to measure what students learn in college. The plan is to compare students’ work, including term papers and lab reports, rather than using a standardized test.

A three-year bachelor’s of applied science degree will cost $13,000 to $15,000 for Texas students. The competency-based degree, developed by South Texas College and Texas A&M University at Commerce, mixes online and face-to-face learning.

‘If I need geometry, I’ll learn it then’

Scott Hamilton is the Forrest Gump of education reform, although with a lot more IQ points and fewer chocolates, I write in an Education Next profile.

He worked for Bill Bennett in the U.S. Department of Education and for Benno Schmidt at the Edison Project. He authorized charter schools in Massachusetts, co-founded the KIPP network, quadrupled the size of Teach For America (TFA), and introduced blended learning at urban Catholic schools. He’s been around.

Now 47, he’s started a new initiative called Circumventure, based in San Francisco. Through surveys, focus groups, field tests, and interviews, Circumventure is asking fundamental questions: Do people want what schools are offering? If not, what do they want? Can technology make it happen?

Being a “good learner” is valued by the students and parents he’s interviewed. Being “well educated” is not. “Young Millennials and their Generation Z siblings” believe they don’t need school to learn new things. They’ll do it all themselves—if and when they feel like it. “Teens think, ‘I’ll never use geometry. If I need it, I’ll learn it then’.”

Colleges consider exit exams

Students are used to taking tests to get into college, writes Jon Marcus on the Hechinger Report. In the future, they may need to pass college exit exams to get out with a degree. Policymakers, parents and prospective employers want proof that graduates have learned something.

“There is a groundswell from the public about whether a college degree is worth what people are paying for it,” said Stephanie Davidson, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University System of Ohio. “People are asking for tangible demonstrations of what students know.”

In Ohio, candidates for education degrees must write a lesson plan, submit a video of their teaching and pass other tests. Accumulating credits isn’t enough.

The Wisconsin Technical College System requires graduating students to submit portfolios, research papers, test scores or other proof of what they know.

The University of Central Missouri requires students to pass the College Basic Academic Subjects Examination before they are allowed to graduate. (But the cutoff score is below “proficiency,” Marcus notes.)

“Isn’t it amazing that the newest and most brilliant idea out there is that students should achieve particular skills and prove it?” Marsha Watson, president of the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education, asked wryly. “Wow.”

Grade inflation is rampant at colleges and universities, researchers say. Forty-three percent of grades given out by college faculty are As.

Yet one-half of students about to graduate from four-year colleges and 75 percent at two-year schools fall below the “proficient” level of literacy, according to a survey by the American Institutes for Research. That means they’re unable to complete such real-world tasks as comparing credit-card offers with different interest rates or summarizing the two sides of an argument.

In a survey, a third of employers said college aren’t qualified for entry-level work.

More and more states, including Missouri, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, have approved using student exit-test results to determine how institutions are doing —though in most cases not yet to judge individual students or decide whether or not they should be allowed to get degrees — as one of the measures on which they base continued public university funding.

Nearly 50 colleges and universities in nine more states — Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Utah — are trying to develop a way to test students, before they graduate, in written communication and quantitative literacy, though so far this is also solely for the purpose of evaluating their own programs.

Developing ways to measure student learning “is time-consuming, complicated and expensive,” writes Marcus. It’s also deeply threatening to colleges and universities.

A few colleges now report learning outcomes for their graduates.

‘Why I am not canceling class tomorrow’

A Berkeley math lecturer’s email to students – “Why I am not canceling class tomorrow” — has gone viral. Andrew Coward explained why a strike by University of California workers will not stop him from teaching his class — and covering two class sections normally taught by striking TAs. Here’s part of it:

In order for you to navigate the increasing complexity of the 21st century you need a world-class education, and thankfully you have an opportunity to get one. I don’t just mean the education you get in class, but I mean the education you get in everything you do, every book you read, every conversation you have, every thought you think.

You need to optimize your life for learning.

You need to live and breath your education.

You need to be *obsessed* with your education.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that because you are surrounded by so many dazzlingly smart fellow students that means you’re no good. Nothing could be further from the truth.

And do not fall into the trap of thinking that you focusing on your education is a selfish thing. It’s not a selfish thing. It’s the most noble thing you could do.

Society is investing in you so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades, from profound technological challenges to helping people with the age old search for human happiness and meaning.

That is why I am not canceling class tomorrow. Your education is really really important, not just to you, but in a far broader and wider reaching way than I think any of you have yet to fully appreciate.

Coward is an Oxford graduate. Here’s his teaching statement.

MOOCs are hot, but do they work?

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are red hot in higher education, but how much are MOOC students learning?

Community college students are more likely to drop out of online classes and earn lower grades, a new study finds.

Lose that yellow highlighter

The most common study techniques — marking up the textbook with yellow highlighter, rereading and cramming at the last minute — are the least effective, writes John Dunlosky,  Kent State psychology professor, on the AFT blog. Taking practice tests and spreading out studying over time is much more likely to help students learn and remember, researchers have found.

Table 1: Effectiveness of Techniques Reviewed

 Other study techniques are “promising” but unproven:

Interleaved practice: implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session.

Elaborative interrogation: generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.

Self-explanation: explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving.

Among the less-useful strategies are: rereading the text, highlighting and underlining, summarizing, using mnemonics and “attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening.”

We need more tests, but what kind?

American Schools Need More Testing, Not Less, writes Ezekiel J. Emanuel in The New Republic. Students learn more when they take frequent, short tests.

A young neuroscientist named Andrew Butler has gone further, showing that testing can actually facilitate creative problem solving. In Butler’s research, undergraduates were given six prose passages of about 1,000 words each filled with facts and concepts. (Fact: There are approximately 1,000 species of bats. Concept: how bats’ echolocation works.) He had the students just study some of the passages; others, he repeatedly tested them on. Not only did his subjects demonstrate a better grasp of the tested material, but they also fared better when asked to take the concepts about which they’d been quizzed and apply them in completely new contexts—for example, by using what they’d learned about bat and bird wings to answer questions about airplane wings. When students had been tested on the passages, rather than just reading them, they got about 50 percent more of the answers correct. They were better at drawing inferences, thanks to the testing effect.

Only tests written by teachers are useful, responds Diane Ravitch. “Today’s standardized tests are useless.”

What he really admires, and appropriately so, are the regular weekly tests that he took in high school chemistry. His chemistry teacher Mr. Koontz knew what he had taught. He tested the students on what they had learned. He knew by the end of the day or over the weekend which students were keeping up and which ones were falling behind. He could act on that knowledge immediately to make sure that students understood what he thought he had taught and to explain it again to those who did not. He also learned whether to adjust his style of teaching to communicate the concepts and facts of chemistry more clearly to students. Mr. Koontz used the tests appropriately: to help his students.

Standardized exams are being used as “a ranking and rating system, one that gives carrots to teachers if their students do well but beats them with a stick (or fires them and closes their school) if they don’t,” Ravitch writes.

Most researchers say that teacher quality cannot be reliably measured by student test scores, because there are so many other variables that influence the scores, but the federal Department of Education is betting billions of dollars on it.

The job of writing, grading and analyzing tests belongs to “Mr. Koontz, not to Arne Duncan or Pearson or McGraw-Hill,” concludes Ravitch.