Teens must save the world from ‘DUST’

NASA has launched an alternate reality game called DUST to get teens excited about analyzing data, testing theories and communicating ideas. It’s also supposed to attract girls and minority teens to STEM problem-solving. (I wonder why the kids in the promo trailer are white.)
NASA's 'DUST' Gets Students, Young Women Excited About STEM

In the game, dust from a meteor shower puts every adult in a coma. “It is up to the players, whose target ages are 13-17, to save the world [and their parents’ lives] by the end of seven weeks of play.”

Players receive new parts of the story and science clues every few days through social media, email and game apps. They interact with other players and with fictional characters.

NASA, Brigham Young and the University of Maryland developers collaborated on the game with help from college students.  Middle schoolers tested mobile apps and the player community website.

It’s not your dad’s math teaching

Any parent who opposes Common Core standards is saying, in effect, “‘I do not want my child prepared for life in the Twenty-First Century’,” writes Keith Devlin, a Stanford mathematician. They don’t realize how much educational needs have changed in the last 30 years, he argues.

Fortune 500 executives were asked for the most valued skills in a new hire in 1970 and again in 1999, notes Linda Darling-Hammond in a 2013 paper, Devlin writes.

Writing, the top skill in 1970, dropped to 10th place, while skills two and three, computation and reading, didn’t even make the top 10 in 1999.

Teamwork rose from number 10 to first place. The other two skills at the top, problem solving and interpersonal skills, weren’t listed in 1970.

Common Core math standards, which include “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them,” align with those 21st-century skills, writes Devlin. Today’s children “need a very different kind of education: one based on understanding rather then procedural mastery, and on exploration rather than instruction,” he concludes.

Even in my day, when we were trying to beat “Ivan,” people wanted kids to understand math. If Core math leads to deeper understanding, rather than dizzier confusion, parents will climb on board.

Still, I doubt that 21st-century employers really want to hire people with weak literacy and math skills, as long as they’re team players with pleasant personalities. As for “problem solving,” I agree with a comment by Ellie K:

Employees who can’t read, write or “compute,” i.e. know arithmetic, geometry and algebra, aren’t going to be able to solve problems, contribute as members of teams in collaborative settings nor communicate effectively.

In a 2014 Linked-In survey, employers rated problem-solving skills and being a good learner as the two most important skills for a new hire, reports Business News Daily. Employers also value strong analytical and communications skills, but speaking well is more important than writing. “Only 6 percent of employers said they’re looking for strong mathematical and statistical skills.”

Employers also want workers who can collaborate effectively and work hard.

Via Laura Waters on Education Post.


Student-centered math aids problem solving

When excellent math teachers use a “student-centered” approach, students are more engaged and do better on problem-solving tests, concludes a new AIR study.

Example of student-centered problem from AIR report

Example of student-centered problem from AIR report

“A traditional teacher might simply explain, for example, how to graph a line, step-by-step, using y-intercept and slope . . . .and give students a tool box of procedures to tackle any problem,” writes Jill Barshay on the Hechinger Report.

“A student-centered teacher might turn the classroom floor into a giant graph-paper grid and ask the students to become data points and walk to where they should be plotted.”

Researchers found 22 highly regarded high school math teachers in New York and New England. Half were traditional teachers and half used many student-centered approaches. “The more a teacher used student-centered approaches, the more his or her students learned, and the better they did on an exam of complex problem-solving that resembles the PISA international test for 15-year-olds,” reports Barshay.

Traditional math problem from AIR report

Traditional math problem from AIR report

However, student-centered teaching may not work well for all teachers or all students, said AIR researcher Kirk Walters.

“Student-centered approaches may hold promise,” he said. However, the study looked at excellent teachers with largely middle-class, high-performing students.

I’d guess that effective student-centered teaching requires more teaching skill.

Math reform on steroids

Common Core standards aren’t supposed to tell teachers how to teach, writes Barry Garelick in Education News. However, Common Core math is “a massive dose of steroids” for the math reform movement.

Reform math has manifested itself in classrooms across the United States mostly in lower grades, in the form of “discovery-oriented” and “student-centered” classes, in which the teacher becomes a facilitator or “guide on the side” rather than the “sage on the stage” and students work so-called “real world” or “authentic problems.” It also has taken the form of de-emphasizing practices and drills, requiring oral or written “explanations” of problems so obvious they need none, finding more than one way to do a problem, and using cumbersome strategies for basic arithmetic functions.

. . . math reformers believe such practices will result in students understanding how numbers work—as opposed to just “doing” math. In fact, reformers tend to mischaracterize traditionally taught math as teaching only the “doing” and not the understanding; that it is rote memorization of facts and procedures and that students do not learn how to think or problem solve.

“Forcing students to think of multiple ways to solve a problem” doesn’t guarantee they understand what they’re doing, he writes. Students’ explanations often “will have little mathematical value.”  They’re demonstrating “rote understanding.”

Nations that teach math in the traditional way do quite well on PISA, even though the exam reflects “reform math principles,” writes Garelick. “Perhaps this is because basic foundational skills enable more thinking than a conglomeration of rote understandings.”

In this video, a teacher shows how to explain why 9 + 6 = 15 by “making tens.”

‘Curious’ in a google-it world

Ian Leslie plays with his baby daughter.

Ian Leslie plays with his baby daughter.

In a wired world, it’s easy to access information. That can discourage “true curiosity,” writes Ian Leslie in Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It 

Leslie criticizes Sir Ken Robinson’s wildly popular TED talk on how schools squash creativity, notes Philip Delves Broughton in a Wall Street Journal review of the book . Sir Ken wants children to master “learning skills” rather than knowledge.

This is dangerous nonsense, Mr. Leslie asserts, an insidious argument for workforce training dressed up as respect for the individuality of the child. “It’s a philosophy that has made its way deep into the educational mainstream,” writes Mr. Leslie. “It can be found wherever you see an approving reference to students ‘taking control of their own learning’ or a teacher criticized for spending too much time on instruction instead of allowing children to express themselves. A report published on the website of a British teaching union states plainly, ‘A 21st century curriculum cannot have the transfer of knowledge at its core.’ “

Children’s “natural appetite for learning” needs to be “fed with knowledge by teachers and adults who know something of the world,” argues Leslie.

“Diversive curiosity, the attraction to everything novel,” is easily satisfied, writes Broughton. “Epistemic curiosity, a deeper desire to understand a subject from top to bottom, may lead to a lifetime’s study and even profound discovery.”

The sheer abundance of information at our disposal risks turning us into a society of glib know-it-alls, ignorant of our own ignorance.

. . . Mr. Leslie cites a question recently posted on the social-news and discussion site Reddit: “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about today?” The most popular answer was this: “I possess a device in my pocket that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”

Knowledge makes us smarter, Leslie writes. “People who know more about a subject have a kind of X-ray vision; they can zero in on a problem’s underlying fundamentals, rather than using up their brain’s processing power on getting to grips with the information in which the problem comes wrapped.”

‘Brain Busters’ win First Lego

A tornado, hurricane or earthquake has devastated a town and wiped out communications. Where can people go for help? Look for the giant balloon.

The Brain Busters — a team of six boys from Sherborne, Massachusetts — has won FIRST LEGO League’s global innovation award for their idea: After a natural disaster, suspend a large sign from a helium balloon that can be seen at long distances.

The Brain Busters’ “love math, computer programming, engineering, and problem solving,” they write. “We built a full scale (100’ high!), working model that we have deployed in high winds, snow storms, and extreme cold.”

State emergency management officials hope to put the idea into use.

More than 500 FIRST LEGO League teams submitted their ideas.

Runners up were the Robotic Raiders of Williamsburg, Iowa, who devised the Cyclone Survivor board game to teach how to prepare for, survive and recover from a tornado, and RobotTec of Santiago, Chile, who designed the Tsunami Evacuation System, which uses retro-reflectors and three-color LED lights on major streets.

Simple math made complicated — for a reason

The Common Core makes simple math more complicated in order to teach understanding, writes Libby Nelson on Vox.

In the past, “students had this sense that math was some kind of magical black box,” says Dan Meyer, a former high school math teacher studying math education at Stanford University. “That wasn’t good enough.”

Students will learn different ways to multiply, divide, add, and subtract so they can see why the standard method works, writes Nelson. “They can play with them in fun, flexible ways,” says Meyer, who blogs at Dy/Dan.

Using a number line for subtraction lets students visualize the “distance” between two numbers. A father’s complaint about a confusing number line problem went viral on the Internet. Nelson provides a clearer version. 

Students put the two numbers at opposite ends of the number line.


It’s 4 steps from 316 to 320, 100 steps from 320 to 420, 7 steps from 420 to 427.


Then they add the steps together: 4 + 100 + 7 = a distance of 111. LearnZillion, a company that creates lesson plans for teaching to the Common Core standards, has a 5-minute video explaining this technique.

“Students should be able to understand any of these approaches,” said Morgan Polikoff, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California who is studying how the Common Core is implemented in the classroom. “It doesn’t mandate that they necessarily do one or the other.”

“A key question is whether elementary school teachers can learn to teach the conceptual side of math effectively,” writes Nelson.

If not, number lines and area models will just become another recipe, steps to memorize in order to get an answer, Polikoff says.

This is a real risk: Many elementary teachers are strong on reading and weak in math (and science). Perhaps we need math/science specialists in elementary school who understand their subject deeply and can teach kids to understand too.

Koreans achieve, despite schools

Korean students are high achievers “not because of Korea’s schools, but often despite them,” writes Michael Horn in Forbes.

Teachers lecture, while students sleep.

Students spend long hours studying after school, then go to private hagwons for their “real” learning.

. . . if public education remained widely and freely available but not compulsory, many middle- and upper-class parents would stop sending their students to their current schools and instead send them to hagwons for what is often a truly customized and personalized—but quite expensive—learning experience.

That might trigger attempts to customize education in the public schools, writes Horn.

Korea (and Japan) have super-high scores on OECD’s creative problem-solving exam, writes Brandon Wright on Flypaper. There is a “strong, positive correlation between creative problem-solving performance and straightforward, traditional, familiar (if often bleak) math, science, and reading scores,” he writes. “Subject scores seem to buttress problem-solving skills—or at least to originate from the same source, sort of like twins.”

U.S. teens are above average at problem solving

PISA Problem SolvingU.S. 15-year-olds score just above the world average on PISA’s “creative problem-solving” exam, but below students in Asia, Canada, Australia, Finland, Britain and other European countries.   

“Students might be asked to identify the cheapest lines of furniture in a catalog showing different brands,” reports the New York Times. “At a more advanced level, students could be asked to develop a process for figuring out why a particular electronic device was not working properly.

American students did well at “interactive” tasks that required them to find some of the information needed to solve the problem. “This suggests that students in the United States are open to novelty, tolerate doubt and uncertainty, and dare to use intuition to initiate a solution,” the O.E.C.D. said in a statement.

But Asian students — who typically do best in math and science exams — also outperformed the U.S. students on “interactive” problems. 

“To understand how to navigate a complex problem and exercise abstract reasoning is actually a very strong point for the Asian countries,” said Francesco Avvisati, an analyst. 

The results don’t support the U.S. reputation for creativity, writes Joy Resmovits in the Huffington Post. 

Critics say the top-performing Asian countries “aren’t teaching kids to think creatively and problem-solve,” author Amanda Ripley said. “Well, now we have a test that gets closer to measuring those skills than any other — and they are killing it. Again.”

Here are some sample questions.

K-5 teachers: Homework = 2.9 hours per week

Elementary teachers assign an average of 2.9 hours of homework per week, middle school teachers assign 3.2 hours and high school teachers expect 3.5 hours, according to a Harris poll for University of Phoenix.

A high school student taking five courses could have 17.5 hours of homework per week. (When my daughter was in high school, she averaged three hours a night.)

Teachers say homework  helps them see how well their students understand the lessons (60 percent); helps students develop problem-solving skills (46 percent); gives parents a chance to see what is being learned in school (45 percent); helps students develop time management skills (39 percent); encourages students to relate classroom learning to outside activities (37 percent) and allows teachers to cover more content in class (30 percent).