Drill and skill

“Drill and kill” — practicing math skills taught by the teacher — works best for struggling first graders, concludes a new study. Yet teachers with the most math-challenged students are the most likely to use ineffective “student-centered” strategies, researcher George Farkas, a UC Irvine education professor, found.

. . . “routine practice or drill, math worksheets, problems from textbooks and math on the chalkboard appear to be most effective, probably because they increase the automaticity of arithmetic. It may be like finger exercises on the piano or ‘sounding out’ words in reading. Foundational skills need to be routinized so that the mind is free to think.”

Hands-on activities that use manipulations, calculators, movement and music may be fun, but they don’t improve first graders’ achievement, according to Farkas. It takes a teacher explicitly teaching facts, skills and concepts with plenty of time for practice.

“Teacher-directed instruction also is linked to gains in children without a history of math trouble,” writes  Maureen Downey. “But unlike their math-challenged counterparts, they can benefit from some types of student-centered instruction as well – such as working on problems with several solutions, peer tutoring, and activities involving real-life math.”

A friend who teaches in a Title 1 school lamented that her students didn’t do as well in the math CRCT as the classroom next door where the teacher used worksheets all the time. My friend’s classroom was a beehive of fun activities around math, but the worksheet class continually outperformed hers.

The study was published online in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Teaching to the (good) test is good

Teaching to the Test Is Good – if the test is good — writes Walt Gardner on Reality Check.

When he studied journalism at UCLA, students practiced writing news stories in a three-hour lab. The professor provided immediate feedback. Students practiced the skills needed to pass the final exam — and to work as reporters.

When I was teaching English, I took great pains to provide my students with practice writing what I thought would serve them best in the long run. I concluded that making a persuasive argument would meet this need. Therefore, I gave them ample practice writing persuasive essays in which they had to take a position and support it with evidence. It’s not that other forms of writing were not important, but I had to prioritize. Was this teaching to the test? Definitely. But students never knew which topic they would have to write a persuasive essay about.

As a speech teacher, he developed units based on speech tournament categories such as humorous interpretation and dramatic interpretation.

After each speech, students were asked to make constructive comments based upon a sheet that I handed out. This was my version of what my journalism professor taught me: appropriate practice followed by immediate feedback. The result was that students won a host of trophies and placed high in state tournaments held on college campuses.

Gardner would prefer to use standardized tests only to diagnose problems, but that’s not going to happen, he writes. “Therefore, I suggest we use our time and energy to design standardized tests that are sensitive to effective instruction involving the most important material.” It’s the only to build public support for public schools, he concludes.

Train teachers like pilots

Train teachers like pilots, suggests Amanda Ripley in the Atlantic.

Before George Deneault flew Air Force combat missions, he had to practice every skill again and again.  When he retired and became a special-ed math teacher, “he walked into a Virginia classroom cold.”

Before student teachers enter classes, Boston’s Match Teacher Residency program puts them through 100 hours of drills with students and adults acting like slouching, fiddling, back-talking kids. The brain learns to respond to routine misbehavior, so it can focus on the harder work of teaching. The Institute for Simulation and Training runs a virtual classroom at 12 education colleges nationwide—using artificial intelligence, five child avatars, and a behind-the-scenes actor. Some trainees find the simulation so arduous that they decide not to go into teaching after all.

But most teachers in training do 12 to 15 weeks of student teaching with an experienced teacher in the classroom. “Once on the job, most teachers get only nominal supervision, and 46 percent quit within five years,” Ripley writes.

It is time, finally, to start training teachers the way we train doctors and pilots, with intense, realistic practice, using humans, simulations, and master instructors—time to stop saying teaching is hard work and start acting like it.

Is it possible to simulate the teaching experience for people who aren’t really classroom teachers? What would have to be added to the slouching students to make it realistic?

The dangers of education technology

Technology is undermining math and science education, argues Konstantin Kakaes, a New America Foundation fellow, on Slate. Fancy gizmos and software shortcuts waste money and weaken learning, he writes.

When Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, Va., recently renovated its classrooms, Vern Williams, who might be the best math teacher in the country, had to fight to keep his blackboard. The school was putting in new “interactive whiteboards” in every room, part of a broader effort to increase the use of technology in education. . . . It is beginning to do to our educational system what the transformation to industrial agriculture has done to our food system over the past half century: efficiently produce a deluge of cheap, empty calories.

. . . Williams doesn’t just prefer his old chalkboard to the high-tech version. His kids learn from textbooks that are decades old—not because they can’t afford new ones, but because Williams and a handful of his like-minded colleagues know the old ones are better. The school’s parent-teacher association buys them from used bookstores because the county won’t pay for them (despite the plentiful money for technology). His preferred algebra book, he says, is “in-your-face algebra. They give amazing outstanding examples. They teach the lessons.”

The modern textbooks, he says, contain hundreds of extraneous, confusing, and often outright wrong examples, instead of presenting mathematical ideas in a coherent way.

Technology can help students learn concepts, advocates claim. In practice, that doesn’t happen, Kakaes writes. Students are even more likely to arrive in college with little understanding of math. The graphing calculator has done the work for them.

A science teacher demonstrated the superiority of her interactive whiteboard by showing him a music video featuring a Rube Goldberg machine. He wasn’t impressed. Then she showed a drawing of an electric circuit in which wires connect a light bulb to a battery. Close the circuit and the bulb lights up.

Her students like it when the bulb lights up, she says, because it reminds them of a video game. But this shortcut is dangerous. Learning how to visualize—as required when an electric circuit is drawn on a blackboard—is vital for developing the ability to think abstractly. You also have to make students manipulate real circuits with real batteries, with real wires that connect them and sometimes break. Showing them a toy circuit in computer software is an unhappy middle ground between these two useful teaching exercises: You neither learn how to trouble-shoot in the real world, nor do you think clearly about how electrons work.

Math and science require hard work, practice and perseverance, says Williams. There are no shortcuts.

Spiral practice, not instruction

Spiraled instruction stifles learning, writes Coach G in Ed Week.  “We touch on lots of topics each year,” then review the same material the next year and the year after that.  In his first teaching job, “Algebra 2 was such a rehash of the district’s Algebra 1 course that some teachers called it ‘Algebra T-o-o’.”

Consider, for example, area and perimeter, which students are first exposed to in third or fourth grade, and see again in middle school. Yet when area and perimeter come up in high school, most teachers–including me at first–teach them from scratch.

The problem, of course, goes back to the disconnect between kids seeing something and actually learning–and retaining–it. But if it didn’t sink in for them the first, second, or third time a teacher presented it, why should we present it again?

Instead of spiraling touch-and-go instruction, teachers should spiral practice, Coach G writes. “Instead of limiting assignments to recent content from the current course, we should also include problems on earlier content from that course AND previous courses.”

Teach to students’ commonalities

Instead of always trying to individualize instruction or teach to different “learning styles,” teachers should spend more time teaching to what students have in common, advise Daniel Willingham and David Daniel in Educational Leadership. For example, all children need factual knowledge, practice and feedback from a knowledgeable source to learn.

Brain calisthenics

Brain calisthenics” — such as computer-based exercises in quickly linking graphs to equations –  help students internalize abstract ideas and see patterns intuitively, say cognitive science researchers in a New York Times story.

Now, a small group of cognitive scientists is arguing that schools and students could take far more advantage of this same bottom-up ability, called perceptual learning. The brain is a pattern-recognition machine, after all, and when focused properly, it can quickly deepen a person’s grasp of a principle, new studies suggest.

In a 2010 study, UCLA and Penn researchers used perception training to teach fractions to  sixth graders in a Philadelphia public school.

On the computer module, a fraction appeared as a block. The students used a “slicer” to cut that block into fractions and a “cloner” to copy those slices. They used these pieces to build a new block from the original one — for example, cutting a block that represented the fraction 4/3 into four equal slices, then making three more copies to produce a block that represented 7/3. The program immediately displayed an ‘X’ next to wrong answers and “Correct!” next to correct ones, then moved to the next problem. It automatically adjusted to each student’s ability, advancing slowly for some and quickly for others. The students worked with the modules individually, for 15- to 30-minute intervals during the spring term, until they could perform most of the fraction exercises correctly.

In a test on the skills given afterward, on problems the students hadn’t seen before, the group got 73 percent correct. A comparison group of seventh graders, who’d been taught how to solve such problems as part of regular classes, scored just 25 percent on the test.

Notice how few students understand fractions.

Reading the comments reminded me of the parable of the six blind men and the elephant. Every reader seems to think the research proves their theory: Kids need more practice; kids need to construct knowledge, kids need real-world examples, kids need visuals.

I’m not doing well with abstract ideas this week, due to a horrible cold and a racking cough, but here’s UCLA’s graphs ‘n equations module.