Why does Mr. Snuffleupagus snuffle?

Sesame Street is trying to teach nature, math, science and engineering ideas to preschoolers, reports the New York Times.

. . . (A cow) made it up the stairs to the beauty parlor but now, her bouffant piled high, she’s stuck. Cows can go up stairs, she moans, but not down.

Enter Super Grover 2.0. Out from his bottomless “utility sock” comes an enormous ramp, which, as the cow cheerily notes before clomping on down, is “a sloping surface that goes from high to low.”

It’s not about the letter C or the number 7  any more. Now Sesame Street is tackling “topics like how a pulley works or how to go about investigating what’s making Mr. Snuffleupagus sneeze,” reports the Times.

Zach Hyman

Murray Monster, shown here attending Robo Fun School, appears in science-focused segments with children.

Super Grover 2.0 “uses magnets, springs and ‘superpowers’ of investigation, observation and reporting to solve problems through trial and error. Before settling on a ramp for the stuck cow, for instance, he tries a trampoline.”

Last season, Elmo began starring in a daily musical that incorporates math.

On Sept. 24, Sesame Workshop will launch “Little Discoverers: Big Fun With Science, Math and More” on the web site. “In one game, little fingers manipulate a virtual spring to launch pieces of trash into Oscar the Grouch’s trash can, a Sesame Street version of ‘Angry Birds’.”

How would you improve science ed?

If you could make one change to improve science education, what would it be? Science Times asked 19 scientists, educators and students.

Quite a few called for science teachers who know science, math teachers who know math and lessons that ask students to solve real-world problems.

Maria Klawe, a computer scientist and president of Harvey Mudd College wants teachers to “help all students understand that hard work and persistence are much more important to scientific success than natural ability.”

Focus STEM courses on “creativity and invention,” says Sal Khan, creator of Khan Academy.  The “traditional skills . . .  are tools to empower creativity.”

States aren’t rushing to adopt Next Generation Science Standards, which was developed by a consortium of 26 states, notes the Hechinger Report. California adopted the standards last week, joining Maryland, Vermont, Rhode Island, Kansas and Kentucky.

Paul Bruno, a middle school science teacher from California – a state which got an ‘A’ in the Fordham ratings – has gotten attention for his critique of the NGSS. He said that basic content knowledge was needed before students could understand scientific and engineering practices, or how scientists ‘do science.’

Bruno worries the standards will confuse and overwhelm students by asking them to do too much at once.

California hasn’t decided when to implement NGSS, reports EdSource  Today.

Like the Common Core standards, their counterparts in English language arts and math, the new science standards stress problem solving, critical thinking and finding common principles or “cross-cutting concepts” that engineering and various fields of science share. They emphasize scientific thinking and big ideas over memorization in the hope that more students will become intrigued by science.

Implementing Common core standards in language arts and math is sucking up schools’ time, money and “mindshare.”

‘Fun’ with ‘math’

Museums are trying to make “math” “fun,” writes Katharine Beals, using quotes advisedly, on Out in Left Field.

Math has an image problem, explains Ed Week, which shows students dancing on the light-activated Math Square at the Museum of Mathematics in New York. Math is “often seen as hard, abstract—even pointless.”  The museum hopes to convince kids that math is “cool.”

“Changing perceptions is our goal,” said Cindy Lawrence, the co-executive director of MoMath, as it’s quickly become known. “From the minute people walk in the door, we try to highlight the creative side of math: that it’s colorful, it’s beautiful, it’s exploratory, fun and engaging. None of these are words people typically associate with math.”

MoMath activities include dancing in front of screens that illustrate fractals, riding an oversize tricycle with square wheels on a bumpy track and putting together a large, colorful foam tetraxis geometric structure.

The Geometry Playground at the Exploratorium in San Francisco features giant mathematical climbing structures to help students understand spatial reasoning.

“The thrust of the exhibit was to create a whole-body, immersive experience where people are navigating through space,” said Josh Gutwill, the director of visitor research and evaluation at the science museum.

Visitors use 12-sided figures to build structures and try to play hopscotch in front of a curved mirror. While most people think of math as a “cerebral domain,” Mr. Gutwill said students can better understand it through physical, interactive experiences.

The Design Zone at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry and the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Math Moves exhibit also try to make math fun, active and creative.

Beals is a skeptic about “playground math,” she writes in a follow-up. “It seems to me that the best way to make math fun is . . . to help them master the rote aspects of arithmetic as quickly and efficiently as possible so they can move on” to solving interesting problems. She includes a KenKen math puzzle.

Math is abstract, isn’t it?

 

Teaching the core — and social competence

California educators are trying to integrate social and emotional learning into Common Core Standards, reports EdSource Today.

SACRAMENTO – School is nothing if not an intensely social experience, which is why teacher Michelle Flores posed this question to 24 third graders at Aspire Capitol Heights Academy: “When someone makes a mistake, what do we say?”

“That’s cool,” the third graders responded in unison. “We are experts at making mistakes,” said Flores, who incorporates social and emotional instruction, including the idea that making a mistake is not cause for embarrassment, into academics at the charter school using an approach called Responsive Classroom.

Students need to work in teams, understand different perspectives and persevere in solving problems, said Nancy Markowitz, director of the Collaborative for Reaching and Teaching the Whole Child at San Jose State University. “To be able to do a ‘pair-share’ in class, where each kid takes a different perspective on the Civil War, listens, empathizes, and represents her point of view, the prerequisite is that students know how to share ideas,” she said.

Flores’s third graders use “professional discourse” and “academic discourse” to discuss math.

“Javon, why do you concur with my thinking?” asked Meranza, who stood beside a document camera and an overhead projector to explain her math results. “I concur with your thoughts because,” began Javon, launching into a math proof.

“Could you please project your voice, Meranza?” asked Niema. “Absolutely,” replied Meranza. “It would be my pleasure to.”

I’m not sure if this is social and emotional learning or just good manners, but I like it.

Finn’s math: One (correct) solution is enough

“Huck Finn” is subbing for math teachers who are away from class learning how to teach to the new Common Core standards. Finn worries that teachers will be told to require students to find multiple ways to solve the same problems, he writes in Out In Left Field.

There’s nothing wrong with finding multiple ways of solving problems.  But in early grades, students find it more than a little frustrating to be told to find three ways of adding 17 + 69.  Putting students in the position of not satisfying the teacher by producing a correct answer and showing how they got it unless they find multiple ways of doing it is a recipe for 1) disaster and 2) rote learning, the bugaboo of the purveyors of “find more than one way to solve it”.

If a student can do a proof or solve a problem correctly, he or she shouldn’t “also have to do 25 fingertip pushups,” Finn believes.

When my daughter had to do a “problem of the week” in pre-algebra, the last question always was: How do you know your answer is correct?  She’d write: “I double-checked my answer,” leaving out the fact that she’d double-checked with her smart friends or her father, who majored in math at Stanford. I think students were supposed to say they’d solved the problem in multiple ways, but nobody was dumb enough to do the extra work.

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.