Will ‘drill and grill’ replace kindergarten play?

Rigorous new Common Core standards endanger young children by requiring “long hours of direct instruction in literacy and math” and more standardized testing, argue Edward Miller, a teacher, and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a retired early childhood education professor, on Answer Sheet.

. . .  “drill and grill” teaching has already pushed active, play-based learning out of many kindergartens.

. . .  Didactic instruction and testing will crowd out other crucial areas of young children’s learning: active, hands-on exploration, and developing social, emotional, problem-solving, and self-regulation skills—all of which are difficult to standardize or measure but are the essential building blocks for academic and social accomplishment and responsible citizenship.

There’s little evidence academic instruction in the early grades leads to later success, they write.

Miller is the co-author of Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School.  Carlsson-Paige is the author of Taking Back Childhood.

Children should play — but not with straw men, counters E. D. Hirsch, a stanch defender of Common Core State Standards. The new standards don’t dictate how teachers should teach, writes Hirsch.

Children have a lot to learn about the world, past and present. They need to learn some things as efficiently as possible—through direct instruction. But they also need opportunities to explore—through well-constructed spaces and activities that invite creative problem solving and role playing.

Some educators are misreading the new standards, writes Hirsch, citing the New York Post story on kindergarteners expected to write “informative/explanatory reports” and demonstrate “algebraic thinking.”

But the status quo isn’t good enough, he concludes.

Parents fight for 2 + 2 = 4

James Shuls, a former elementary teacher working on a doctorate, and his wife, a Spanish teacher in the local school district, wanted their first-grade son to learn standard math algorithms, he writes on Education News. The teacher said the math program focused on “deep understanding.” When they asked for a meeting, the teacher called in the principal, which felt like “being sent to the principal’s office” for challenging the teacher.

The principal offered the chance to observe math classes in three grades.

The (first-grade) teacher was enthusiastic and had a great command of the classroom. I could tell she had experience and connected well with her students. To start the lesson, she read the word problem aloud with the students. It was a multiplication problem in which a boy had five bags and 12 cars in each bag. The teacher wanted to know the total number of cars. Students were reminded to use their strategies to solve the problem, but were not given any specific strategies. What struck me most was the labor-intensive nature of this form of instruction.

. . . even this good teacher could not get around to every student and take the time to help them understand the nuances of every problem-solving strategy that they had developed. As a result, some students were copying, some students had no one-on-one instruction, and other students looked just plain lost. In the entire hour-long lesson, the students worked on only this problem, and by the end, several students appeared no closer to an answer than when they began. Three students were invited to share their strategies at the end of the class, but after they shared their strategies, the lesson was over. The teacher never explained how to solve the problem.

My experiences in the second- and third-grade classes mirrored the first observation. Some students developed strategies, some did not. Never once did a teacher directly teach students how to solve a math problem. At the end of my three hours of observing, I realized that this instructional method encouraged even those students with deeper understanding to work extremely slowly and absolutely left behind all other students.

All the local public schools use the same math program and there are no elementary charter schools in the area. At significant financial sacrifice, they moved their children to private school. We need school choice, concludes Shuls.

In the comments, a parent says “deeper understanding” is code for low expectations.

Also: Why Johnny can’t subtract.

 

Massachusetts beats Finland

Finland is an education “miracle story,” according to one set of international tests, but nothing special on others, reports Ed Week’s Curriculum Matters. “If Finland were a state taking the 8th grade NAEP, it would probably score in the middle of the pack,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The most striking contrast is in mathematics, where the performance of Finnish 8th graders was not statistically different from the U.S. average on the 2011 TIMSS, or Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, released last month. Finland, which last participated in TIMSS in 1999, actually trailed four U.S. states that took part as “benchmarking education systems” on TIMSS this time: Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana.

. . . “Finland’s exaggerated reputation is based on its performance on PISA, an assessment that matches up well with its way of teaching math,” said Loveless, which he described as “applying math to solve ‘real world’ problems.”

He added, “In contrast, TIMSS tries to assess how well students have learned the curriculum taught in schools.”

Finland’s score of 514 on TIMSS for 8th grade math was close to the U.S. average of 509 and well below Massachusetts’ score of 561. Finland was way, way below South Korea on TIMSS but nearly as high on PISA.

Finland beat the U.S. average on TIMSS science section, but was well under Massachusetts.

In 4th grade reading, Finland beat the U.S. average on PIRLS (Progress in International Reading, Literacy Study), but scored about as well as Florida, the only U.S. state to participate.

Finland’s seventh graders dropped from above average to below average on TIMSS math. Pasi Sahlberg of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture said this was “mostly due to a gradual shift of focus in teaching from content mastery towards problem-solving and use of mathematical knowledge.”

McKinsey: Teachers overestimate students’ skills

Teachers overestimate their students’ employability, according to research conducted by McKinsey & Co. Graduates often are judged unready for the workforce by potential employers, leading to underemployment.

While teachers more or less understood which skills employers would value, they had overly rosy view of how well their students had mastered those skills pretty much across the board. In particular, educators think their students are significantly better at problem-solving and more computer literate than potential employers do, and that they have far more hands-on and theoretical training when they graduate from a post-secondary school.

Employers complained the most about job applicants’ “ability to take instruction, their work ethic, their problem-solving skills and . . . language proficiency.”

Kids make cool stuff, learn ‘grit’

Teaching kids to make things teaches problem-solving, perseverance and “grit,” reports Wired.

When Eugene Korsunskiy and seven of his fellow students from Stanford University’s d.school set out to tour the nation in a brightly painted truck full of laser cutters and rapid prototyping machines, they thought they were bringing a chance to play with high-tech maker tools to school kids who hadn’t had one yet.

And they were: SparkTruck, the educational make-mobile, made 73 stops this summer, treating 2,679 elementary and middle school students to hands-on workshops covering the basics of electrical engineering and digital fabrication, and giving a chance to make cool stuff in the process, like small robotic creatures and laser-cut rubber stamps.

The SparkTruck team learned to let children struggle with design problems, get frustrated, beg for help — and then figure it out. “Once you make it clear that you’re not there to provide the answer, they completely rise to the challenge,” said Korsunskiy.

American kids are said to be low on “grit,” the ability to learn from setbacks instead of giving up, Wired writes. Design teaches problem-solving, Korsunskiy said. Students learn to brainstorm, test ideas and go back to the drawing board.

Report: Education failure puts U.S. at risk

Educational failure threatens our economic prosperity, global leadership and national security, according to a report by a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) task force chaired by Joel I. Klein, former head of New York City public schools, and Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. secretary of state.

Too many young people are not employable in an increasingly high-skilled and global economy, and too many are not qualified to join the military because they are physically unfit, have criminal records, or have an inadequate level of education.

“Human capital will determine power in the current century, and the failure to produce that capital will undermine America’s security,” the report states. “Large, undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy.”

Among other policy suggestions, the report calls for expanding Common Core Standards to include “the skills and knowledge necessary to safeguard the country’s national security,” including science, technology, foreign languages, creative problem-solving skills and civic awareness.

Update:  History, science and art are “truant” from school, said panelists at a  Common Core discussion. Common Core will be creating Common Core State Standards-based curriculum maps in history and geography. David Coleman, one of the lead writers of the new English Language Arts standards, said it’s impossible to teach K-5 reading “without coherently developing knowledge in science, and history, and the arts.”

 And that is why NAEP scores in early grades can improve slightly but collapse as students grow older. Because it is the deep foundation in rich knowledge and vocabulary depth that allows you to access more complex text.

Let’s not get confused here that [the CCSS] are adding back nice things [history, arts, science] that are an addendum to literacy.  We are adding the cornerstones of literacy, which are the foundations of knowledge, that make literacy happen.

There is no greater threat to literary study in this country than false imitations of  literature which do not deserve to be read.

Coleman told states not buy mediocre materials with a “Common Core” stamp.  Wait for the good stuff to be available, he said.

Flipping catches on

Flipping instruction — typically, students watch a video at home and work through problems at school — is going mainstream, writes Education Sector’s Bill Tucker in Education Next.

Colorado chemistry teacher Jonathan Bergmann says “he can more easily query individual students, probe for misconceptions around scientific concepts, and clear up incorrect notions.” He has time to work individually with students.

Bergmann notes that he now spends more time with struggling students, who no longer give up on homework, but work through challenging problems in class. Advanced students have more freedom to learn independently.

In Washington, D.C., Andrea Smith, a 6th-grade math teacher at E. L. Haynes, a high-performing public charter school, says flipping is educational for teachers.

. . . crafting a great four- to six-minute video lesson poses a tremendous instructional challenge: how to explain a concept in a clear, concise, bite-sized chunk. Creating her own videos forces her to pay attention to the details and nuances of instruction—the pace, the examples used, the visual representation, and the development of aligned assessment practices. In a video lesson on dividing fractions, for example, Smith is careful not to just teach the procedure—multiply by the inverse—but also to represent the important underlying conceptual ideas.

USA Today also looks at flipped teaching. Stacey Rosen, an AP calculus teacher at a Maryland private school,  “digitally records her lessons with a tablet computer as a virtual blackboard, then uploads them to iTunes and assigns them as homework.” She uses class time to help students work out exercises based on the recorded lessons.

Before flipping, she couldn’t cover all the material before the AP exam. Now, she finishes a month early and uses the extra time for review, boosting the number of students who score a perfect 5.

Students watch lessons at home, sometimes two or three times, and replay confusing sections. If they’re still confused, they query a friend. If that doesn’t work, they ask Roshan the following day.

On a recent morning, she told the class a student was confused about the intermediate value theorem.

 ”It’s a really complicated name for something really simple. You guys want to go over it right now?” No one protested, so she launched into the lesson: She talked, she drew, she took students’ questions. She drew some more. Start to finish, the lesson lasted three minutes and 25 seconds. Back to homework.

Critics say flipping won’t work for low-income students who don’t have computers or reliable Internet connections at home. Of course, it also requires students to watch the videos at home.

In addition, it encourages lecturing, which many think is an ineffective way to teach. “It’s just kind of Lecture 1.0,” says Frank Noschese, a physics teacher at John Jay High School in Cross River, N.Y.

Roshan disagrees.

“In an English class, you send the kids home to read a passage, and then in class you discuss that passage,” she says. “Why in math class am I more or less having them read the passage in class?”

So far, most flippers seem to be teaching math and science classes.  I think it’s too soon to predict that it will go mainstream, but momentum is building.

Modern teens are all thumbs

Today’s teenagers can’t use a hammer, writes Macleans, a Canadian magazine. And that could mean they can’t solve problems.

In Nisku, Alta., John Wright, the technical supervisor at manufacturing company Argus Machines, oversees 12 apprentices in the welding, machinist and millwright trades. Three years ago, he started noticing two tiers of applicants, those with basic mechanical skills and a new crop who, as he says, had no clue what they were doing.

Those who grew up on farms could figure out repairs — and show up on time.  The rest “couldn’t grasp basic nuts-and-bolts mechanics, they couldn’t solve simple problems.”

Occupational therapist Stacy Kramer, clinical director at Toronto’s Hand Skills for Children, says parents don’t put babies on the ground as much, so they do less crawling and don’t develop their hand control.

Then comes the litany of push-button toy gadgets, which don’t exercise the whole hand. That leads to difficulty developing skills that require a more intricate coordination between the hand and brain, like holding a pencil or using scissors, which kindergarten teachers complain more students can’t do. “We see 13-year-olds who can’t do up buttons or tie laces,” she says. “Parents just avoid it by buying Velcro and T-shirts.” Items that—not incidentally—chimpanzees could put on.

Hand development is linked to brain development, neurologists say.

So what happens if that all-important hand-brain conversation gets shortchanged at a young age?

“We don’t really know,” says neurologist Dr. Frank Wilson, author of The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language and Human Culture.

Next-gen science education

Science education should be deep, engaging and coherent, declared a National Research Council panel, which issued a new framework for science standards. Achieve, a nonprofit, will design the “next-generation” standards, which advocates hope will be adopted by most states.

Common Core Standards, now adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, cover English Language Arts and math only, notes Ed Week.

The framework is built around three major dimensions: scientific and engineering practices; cross-cutting concepts that unify the study of science and engineering; and core ideas in four disciplinary areas—physical sciences, life sciences, earth and space sciences, and engineering, technology, and the applications of science.

Framers hope to return science to the K-3 curriculum and to add engineering and technology in the K-8 grades to “provide a context in which students can test their own developing scientific knowledge and apply it to practical problems.”

The report calls for focusing on core scientific ideas and teaching problem solving rather than “just memorizing factual nuggets,” the New York Times summarizes.

“That is the failing of U.S. education today, that kids are expected to learn a lot of things but not expected to be able to use them,” said Helen Quinn, a retired physicist from the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., who led an 18-member committee that spent more than a year devising the framework.

The committee hopes “to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science,” the report states.

Do our students know too many facts? It makes sense to focus on understanding core ideas and applying knowledge to solve problems, but it sure helps to have some knowledge to apply.

Update: The computer scientists want to add computer science to the curriculum.

 

Alfred North Whitehead on “inert ideas”

One of the most remarkable essays I have read on education is “The Aims of Education” by Alfred North Whitehead. First published in 1917, it calls some of our current “wars” into question, particularly the apparent battles between progressives and traditionalists. When Whitehead argues against the danger of “inert ideas,” he seems both progressive and traditional at once.

Whitehead (1861-1947) was a mathematician and philosopher. He co-authored the Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell. He is the founder (to some degree) of “process philosophy,” which he explains in Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology.

Already, I am bristling, because the very idea of “process philosophy” sounds like so much nonsense. But when Whitehead says something, he makes you think–in a way that differs from what you might expect. His points don’t fall in the usual classifications.

The second paragraph of “The Aims of Education” reads:

In training a child to activity of thought, above all things we must beware of what I will call “inert ideas”–that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.

Now, this is interesting, because such “inert ideas” could consist of disjointed facts and big, vague concepts. In other words, schools that emphasize isolated bits of information and schools that emphasize ungrounded “critical thinking and problem-solving” are committing a similar error. They are giving students material out of context. As commenters on Michael’s most recent post have suggested, it is the motion of a topic that makes it interesting and memorable. Daniel T. Willingham has made similar points in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?

But am I reading things into Whitehead? Not at all; here’s more:

Furthermore, we should not endeavour to use propositions in isolation. Emphatically I do not mean, a neat little set of experiments to illustrate Proposition I and then the proof of Proposition I, a neat little set of experiments to illustrate Proposition II and then the proof of Proposition II, and so on to the end of the book. Nothing could be more boring. Interrelated truths are utilised en bloc, and the various propositions are employed in any order, and with any reiteration. Choose some important applications of your theoretical subject; and study them concurrently with the systematic theoretical exposition. … Also the theory should not be muddled up with the practice. The child should have no doubt when it is proving and when it is utilising. My point is that what is proved should be utilised, and that what is utilised should–so far, as is practicable–be proved. I am far from asserting that proof and utilisation are the same thing.

Very interesting. So there should be “theoretical exposition,” short and thorough, alongside (and clearly distinct from) practical application. The theory should be presented in a systematic manner, but “interrelated truths” should be utilized “en bloc.”

In none of this can the details of the subject or the hard work of practice be avoided:

All practical teachers know that education is a patient process of the mastery of details, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. There is no royal road to learning through an airy path of brilliant generalisations. There is a proverb about the difficulty of seeing the wood because of the trees. That difficulty is exactly the point which I am enforcing. The problem of education is to make the pupil see the wood by means of the trees.

But what of the aims of education? What are they? Whitehead writes:

What education has to impart is an intimate sense for the power of ideas, for the beauty of ideas, and for the structure of ideas, together with a particular body of knowledge which has peculiar reference to the life of the being possessing it.

Here’s where things get a little shaky for me. What does he mean by “peculiar reference”? Does he mean that studies should be of personal relevance to each student? Or does he mean that a subject taught in motion is a subject made relevant–that the very motion, the procession from one idea to another, consitutes the relevance, as it helps us see where a particular idea comes from and where it is going? I believe he means the latter. He continues:

The appreciation of the structure of ideas is that side of a cultured mind which can only grow under the influence of a special study. I mean that eye for the whole chess-board, for the bearing of one set of ideas on another. Nothing but a special study can give any appreciation for the exact formulation of general ideas, for their relations when formulated, for their service in the comprehension of life. A mind so disciplined should be
both more abstract and more concrete. It has been trained in the comprehension of abstract thought and in the analysis of facts.

There is much more to the essay than I am conveying here. What’s tantalizing is that some of his ideas are so good and can be misunderstood so easily. They resemble, at first glance, some of the education jargon out there (regarding the “joy of discovery,” for instance) but mean something quite different. One need not agree with all of his points, but they raise the possibility that there is something beyond the oppositions familiar to us today.

I bring up Whitehead in my forthcoming book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. I am grateful to the mathematician who brought Whitehead’s essay to my attention.