Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic — and coding

Audrey Hagan, left, and Amelia Flint, both 8, learning to code last month at an event in Mill Valley, Calif. Jason Henry for The New York Times

Computer coding for kids is a “national education movement that is growing at Internet speeds,” reports the New York Times.

MILL VALLEY, Calif. — Seven-year-old Jordan Lisle, a second grader, joined his family at a packed after-hours school event last month aimed at inspiring a new interest: computer programming.

“I’m a little afraid he’s falling behind,” his mother, Wendy Lisle, said, explaining why they had signed up for the class at Strawberry Point Elementary School.

Code.org, a tech-industry group, is offering free curricula and pushing districts to add programming classes — and not just in high school. In nine states, students earn math — not elective — credits for computer science classes. Chicago’s public school system hopes to make computer science a graduation requirement in five years.

In Mill Valley, elementary school children and their parents solved animated puzzles to learn the basics of computer logic. Many parents see coding as “a basic life skill,” says the Times. Or perhaps the “road to riches.”

Some educators worry about the industry’s heavy role: Major tech companies and their founders, including Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have put up about $10 million for Code.org. The organization pays to train high school teachers to offer more advanced curriculums, and, for younger students, it has developed a coding curriculum that marries basic instruction with video games involving Angry Birds and hungry zombies.

The lessons do not involve traditional computer language. Rather, they use simple word commands — like “move forward” or “turn right” — that children can click on and move around to, say, direct an Angry Bird to capture a pig.

Computer programming should be taught in every school, said Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org and a former executive at Microsoft. It’s as essential as “learning about gravity or molecules, electricity or photosynthesis.”

I’m not convinced that everyone needs to learn programming in order to use computers. And it’s not the only way to learn logic.

My three-year-old nephew was playing Angry Birds on his tablet today, prepping for his future as a high-tech zillionaire. That 7-year-old in Mill Valley is so far behind.

College debate: Is logic white?

African-American college students are transforming debate tournaments, writes Jessica Carew Kraft in The Atlantic. Traditional debate — based on logic and evidence — is tainted by “white privilege,” they argue. Instead “alternative” debaters rely on personal experience — and ignore the topic they’re supposed to be debating.

On March 24, 2014 at the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) Championships at Indiana University, two Towson University students, Ameena Ruffin and Korey Johnson, became the first African-American women to win a national college debate tournament, for which the resolution asked whether the U.S. president’s war powers should be restricted. Rather than address the resolution straight on, Ruffin and Johnson, along with other teams of African-Americans, attacked its premise. The more pressing issue, they argued, is how the U.S. government is at war with poor black communities.

In the final round, Ruffin and Johnson squared off against Rashid Campbell and George Lee from the University of Oklahoma, two highly accomplished African-American debaters with distinctive dreadlocks and dashikis. Over four hours, the two teams engaged in a heated discussion of concepts like “nigga authenticity” and performed hip-hop and spoken-word poetry in the traditional timed format. At one point during Lee’s rebuttal, the clock ran out but he refused to yield the floor. “Fuck the time!” he yelled.

In the 2013 championship, Emporia State students Ryan Walsh and Elijah Smith used a similar style to win two tournaments. “Many of their arguments, based on personal memoir and rap music, completely ignored the stated resolution, and instead asserted that the framework of collegiate debate has historically privileged straight, white, middle-class students.”

Arguments “can come from lived experience,” says Joe Leeson Schatz, Director of Speech and Debate at Binghamton University.

Others say “alternative debate” doesn’t require students to research evidence or develop “the intellectual acuity required for arguing both sides of a resolution.”  

Some colleges may form a new group devoted to “policy debate.”

It’s all part of the war on standards, writes former debater John Hinderaker, now a lawyer, on PowerBlog. The value of debate is “now being lost, as standards have disappeared, logic is out the window, and bullshit about race is replacing actual argumentation.”

Co-blogger Paul Mirengoff, also a lawyer and a former debater, adds:

College debating, it seems, has been radically transformed in ways that make it easier for African-Americans to succeed at it.

As for the notion of “privilege,” it is now clear that the debaters of our era were privileged in a limited but important sense. We were required to take the activity seriously and to meet high standards in order to succeed.

. . . We were also privileged to be judged by adults who held us to knowable standards, and we were privileged to debate serious opponents.

Defining logical argument as a “white thing” does not do blacks any favors, in my opinion.

Joe Miller’s Cross-X, about a low-performing Kansas City high school’s winning debate team — questions the fairness of traditional debate. He profiles black students who win a national tournament, earn college debate scholarships but find they’re not prepared for college-level work.

Geometry without proofs

These days, high school geometry is light on proofs, writes Barry Garelick on Education News. Students may know the sum of the measures of angles in a triangle equals 180 degrees, but most can’t prove the proposition.

If done right, the study of geometry offers students a first-rate and very accessible introduction to the nature and techniques of logical argument and proof which is central to the spirit of mathematics itself.  As such, a proof-based geometry course offers to students—for the first time—an idea of what mathematics means to mathematicians, and how it is used.  Also, unlike algebra and pre-calculus, since geometry deals with shapes, it is easier for students to visualize what it is that must be proven, as opposed to more abstract concepts in algebra.

Most geometry textbooks give students “one or two proofs that are not very challenging in a set of problems devoted to the application of theorems rather than the proving of propositions,” he writes. Many problems indicate missing angles or segments as algebraic expressions. It is, to quote Mr. Spock, “illogical.”

Teach algebra via programming?

Schools can teach mathematical reasoning through software programming rather than conventional algebra classes,writes Julia Steiny on Education News.

In the 1980′s, when Providence, Rhode Island tried College Board’s Equity 2000, she served on the school board. “Business” and “consumer” math were eliminated in favor of algebra for all. The goal was to get everyone through geometry and advanced algebra. Providence assigned all sixth graders to pre-algebra.

The smart kids zipped through quickly, doing algebra in seventh, geometry in eighth and advanced algebra in ninth grade. Teachers created many levels of slower-paced classes for weaker students.

“In time, Equity 2000 got many more urban kids into college,” but it only helped “kids for whom low expectations were the only real problem,” Steiny writes. It will take “new approaches to lure students into the puzzles of mathematical reasoning.”

My now-grown sons, two of whom became software developers, have been arguing since high school that learning computer software programming is essentially learning algebra, only infinitely more fun, interesting, and useful.

Seymour Papert, author of Mindstorms, created Logo to enable young children to explore mathematical ideas.

Why students can’t write

From trivium to triviality: Students can’t write because they don’t learn grammar or logic, an instructor argues.

Also, all students need a liberal education, even those training for careers, writes a community college president on Community College Spotlight.

The failure of U.S. higher education

Higher education is failing almost as badly as K-12, writes Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

Over the years, he’s interviewed many recent college graduates for jobs at this think tank.

Because the quality of so many of the graduates was so poor, ITIF has taken to giving the small share of the most promising applicants (based on their resumes and cover letters) a short test that we email them to complete at home in one hour. The questions are pretty simple: “Go to this person’s bio online and write a three- or four-sentence version of their bio for us to include in a conference packet,” or, “Enter these eight items in a spreadsheet and tell us the average for the ones that end in an odd number.”

. . . In our current hiring process (for an office manager/research assistant) we have so far given the test to approximately 20 college grads. Only one did well enough to merit an interview.

Most of the 19 were graduated from  top-ranked institutions. A recent Princeton graduate  “submitted a test that was full of spelling and grammar mistakes.”

“Why can’t colleges turn out graduates who can write basic sentences and do basic math?” Atkinson asks. He blames professors who want to teach their favorite subject, but don’t teach logic, debate, writing, research or other workplace skills.

One of the best college grads I ever hired (a graduate of Dartmouth) majored in history. In his job . . .  he didn’t need to know history. What he needed to know was how to think, how to write, how to speak intelligently, how to find information and make sense out of it, how to argue coherently, and how to do basic math. Fortunately, he had acquired these skills. But other graduates of colleges such as Kenyan, Bowdoin, Bates, or the University of Pennsylvania, whom I have hired over the years, clearly had not, or at least not nearly as well.

Science and engineering graduates need to know their subjects, he writes. Liberal arts and social sciences majors need practical skills, which they may or may not pick up by accident while studying French literature or the history of the comic book.

Atkinson wants a national test for college graduates of logic, reasoning, basic writing and math skills.

Next, he calls for a national employer survey to determine “what are the specific skills employers are looking for in recent graduates.” The survey also should ask which colleges and universities have provided the best employees.

Finally, we need radical experimentation in college design. It’s time for a foundation or wealthy individual to endow an entirely new college founded on teaching 21st century skills, not 20th century subjects.

I can’t imagine teaching these skills without teaching subject matter as well. Of course, I can’t imagine a Princeton grad who hasn’t mastered grammar and spelling — or, at least, spellchecker.

Many colleges do try to teach writing to students; most professors require research papers. K-12 students do lots of oral presentations. Are college graduates really that hopeless?