Are computers bad for learning?

The more students use computers, the lower their achievement, according to a report from the OECD.

Students in OECD countries and in Russia, averaged two hours a day online in 2012, with 25 minutes of that time was at school, writes Leonid Bershidsky on Bloomberg View.

“The use of computers for schoolwork has increased, especially in Western countries,” but fewer students are using computers at school in Japan, China and South Korea, Bershidsky writes.

In countries where students often use online chats for schoolwork, the decline was sharp. They “may be missing out on other more effective learning activities,” the report suggests.

And less computer use in class doesn’t mean kids aren’t comfortable with technology: According to the report, Korean and Singaporean students are better than anyone else at Internet navigation because they are “already proficient in higher-order thinking and reasoning processes in other domains.”

The study’s results are not clear-cut, however. Australian kids are good at online reading, and Danish and Norwegian schoolchildren score high in math, defying the negative relationships charted in the report.

Not surprisingly, teachers’ ability to use technology well makes a difference.


The best readers . . . tend to be those who use computers slightly less than average,” notes Roberto Ferdman on Washington Post‘s Wonkblog.

Beyond that point, students who spend more time online do worse in reading. That’s even true of those who use computers to practice and drill.

In addition to crowding out other activities, such as reading, “computers might also be killing more helpful paths of thought and discovery,” Ferdman writes.

“Students are cutting and pasting answers instead of finding them,” said Andreas Schleicher, who is the director of education at the OECD and lead author of the study. “In most countries, the current use of technology is already past the point of optimal use in schools,” he said. “We’re at a point where computers are actually hurting learning.”

Teachers aren’t dumb, but training is

National Council on Teacher Quality, 2006

“Dumb teacher training” — not dumb teachers — is the problem with U.S. education, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham in a New York Times op-ed. “Teachers are smart enough,” but they’re not trained to know their subject well and “know how to help children learn it,” he writes.

In 2000, a national panel of experts concluded that reading teachers need explicit knowledge of language features that most people know only implicitly: syntax, morphology (how the roots of words can combine with one another or with prefixes or suffixes) and phonological awareness (the ability to hear parts of spoken language like syllables and individual speech sounds). Yet many undergraduates preparing to teach, fresh from their coursework in reading instruction, don’t know these concepts. In one study, 42 percent could not correctly define “phonological awareness.”

Another study found many professors of reading instruction had trouble identifying phonemes and morphemes.

An international study of new middle school teachers showed that Americans scored worse on a math test than teachers in countries where kids excelled, like Singapore and Poland. William Schmidt of Michigan State University identified the common-sense explanation: American teachers take fewer math classes. Instead, they take more courses in general pedagogy — coursework, that is, on theories of instruction, theories of child development and the like.

Willingham calls for assessing teacher training by testing whether graduates have learned what they need — rather than by evaluating their students’ test scores.

Research shows what teachers need to know, he writes. “Students learn to read better from teachers who understand the structure of language and learn math better from teachers who know specific techniques for drawing analogies to explain mathematical ideas.”

Willingham inspired a number of comments from people who want teachers to inspire, morphemes be damned. Inspiring and ignorant doesn’t inspire me.

Laptops in, textbooks out

Students will get laptops rather than textbooks at Houston schools, reports the Houston Chronicle.  All high school students in the district will receive laptops.

All math and social studies materials will be digital this year. Printed science books were scrapped last year. English books will be next. The new model is “electronic text with features like hyperlinks, videos and interactive maps,” reports the Chronicle.

Houston is warehousing science, social studies and math books and switching to digital content.

Houston is warehousing science, social studies and math books and switching to digital content.

 Superintendent Terry Grier hopes to raise stagnant test scores by using savings from not buying books to “fund the technology and online resources that can be updated more easily,” reports the Chronicle.

“It’s called a digital transformation,” Grier said. “And every teacher is to make that transformation.”

“There are so many things wrong with doing this,” writes Darren, a math teacher who blogs at Right on the Left Coast.Books make it easier to read, find things, study and highlight.  Screens are hard on the eyes and “use a color of light that is known to screw up your circadian rhythms. That means that it’s harder to fall and stay asleep if you study near bedtime.”

There are other problems.

Is the infrastructure strong enough to support the laptops?  (How often does the power go out?  How often does the internet go out?  How often does the wireless go out?  Can the district handle all those kids logged on at once?) Do I have stable desks, and carpeting?

How am I, the teacher, supposed to handle a kid who forgot to charge his laptop, and it goes out during the quiz?

How will the district/schools handle those kids who just cannot be trusted on computers?  (Yes, they exist, and sometimes they find a way to access porn sites and send hundreds of pictures to the school secretary’s printer. Just saying.)

“Two years ago our prior superintendent pushed a mandate to give every single kid an iPad,” writes Ellen K, who blogs at The Sum of All Things, in a comment. Results:

-Less focus on writing-both content and the skill.

-Fewer research skills as students resort to plagiarism on an exponential scale.

-Inability to read — especially scary when you consider that young kids are being taught to read on devices over printed material. Five year olds don’t know the phrase “eye strain” but they do know when something hurts. . . .

-The inability of teachers to remove or even control distractions created by devices has resulted in classroom chaos. Fights and events are formulated on social media and it is literally us against them.

Other than that, it’s been great.


Success Academy: 93% excel in math

Nothing succeeds like Success Academy, New York City’s rapidly expanding charter network, writes Jim Epstein on Reason‘s Hit & Run blog.  Newly released test scores for the schools, where 92 percent of students are black or Hispanic, are “remarkable.”

Sixty-eight percent of Success Academy students tested as proficient in English, compared to 30 percent of city students. Math was the shocker: 93 percent of Success Academy test-takers were proficient in math, compared with 35 percent citywide.

Children play with blocks at a Success Academy school in Brooklyn.

As part of the blocks curriculum, Success kindergarteners collaborate on a design before building their project.

Sixty-eight percent of Success Academy students tested as proficient in English, compared to 30 percent of city students. Math was the shocker: 93 percent of Success Academy test-takers were proficient in math, compared with 35 percent citywide.

Success Academy made up 1 percent of tested schools in the city — and 5 out of the 10 highest-scoring schools in math. All 12 Success schools were ranked in the top 40 for math.

Parents who apply to Success probably are savvier and more motivated than  low-income and working-class blacks and Hispanics who don’t fill out a charter application. (Seats are filled by lottery.) Are they better education parents than the affluent, educated parents who pay top dollar to live near the city’s best public schools?

Two-bedroom apartments near Brooklyn’s P.S. 321 tend to sell for more than a million dollars, in part because parents are desperate to get their kids into the famed Park Slope elementary school. At P.S. 321, 82 percent of test takes were proficient in math this year. That’s respectable—56th highest in the city—but well below all 12 Success Academy schools.

At P.S. 87, which is P.S. 321’s counterpart on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (except the kids are even richer), 80 percent of students were proficient in math. That earned the school 67th place citywide, or well below every Success Academy school.

Most kids learn math at school. If they’re taught well, the children of poorly educated parents can excel.

“Content is king” at Success schools, writes Charles Sahm, who describes the network’s rigorous, well-thought-out English and math curriculum in Education Next.

11th-graders read ‘3 Little Pigs’

Eleventh-graders reading aloud from The Three Little Pigs was just one example of low expectations in a state Education Department review of New York City schools, reports the New York Post.

At Landmark High, a low-performing Manhattan school, some other classes also read low-level texts, the report found. When students read challenging material, they didn’t understand it. “When asked to answer simple questions about the text, most either reread the words in the text or said they did not know.”

Reading The Three Little Pigs was a five-minute “Do Now” activity to get the juniors settled down, New York City education officials told the Post.

“The purpose was to use a simple, well-known story to support understanding of bias in a college-level text,” Principal Caron Pinkus said in an email. “After this introduction exercise, students held a discussion about bias and point of view in the college-level texts they were reading.”

Read-alouds aren’t a typical “do now” activity. And you’d think the teacher could lead a discussion about point of view by referring to the well-known story rather than having students read a book recommended for kindergarteners.

I have to admit I’m now thinking about the wolf’s point of view. I was hungry, so I tried to eat some pigs. It doesn’t really change the story. In The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, the wolf is trying to borrow a cup of sugar for a recipe, but he has a very bad cold and keeps sneezing.

What works in early ed? Not Head Start

Head Start has little or no effect on reading, math or social-emotional development, according to a July 2015 report from the What Works Clearinghouse.

The Clearinghouse rejected most Head Start studies for non-experimental design or because they didn’t assess academic and behavioral outcomes. Only one 2010 study was considered rigorous enough to be reliable.
A new study found female Head Start employees report higher levels of poor health conditions. It compared Head Start participants to children who’d applied but were turned away.  (Sixty percent of the control group enrolled in some form of out-of-home care.) There was little difference in kindergarten or first grade between the two groups.

Head Start grads did slightly better in a “receptive vocabulary” test, suggesting “potentially positive effects on reading.” Head Start grads who’d started as three-year-olds did slightly worse in math.

Both groups were made up of children from very low-income families. By the end of kindergarten, 58 percent of the control group and 55 percent of the Head Start group knew all their letters — compared to 95 percent of U.S. kindergarteners.

College reading focuses on diversity, equality 

When colleges suggest a “common reading” book for new students, it’s usually a non-fiction book on diversity or racial equality, according to an Inside Higher Education survey of 121 colleges and universities.

The top pick, used by 10 colleges and universities,  was Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Redemption and Justice Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and a law professor at New York University, he writes about trying to overturn death and prison sentences for criminals — most are black men — he believes to be wrongly convicted.

(I see the jacket blurb compares Stevenson to Atticus Finch.)

Other titles on the freshman reading list this year range from The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities at Ohio State University to Bad Feminist at the University of California at Los Angeles and Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash at Rowan and Lock Haven Universities. Texts on economics, sustainability and food remained popular, but were second to books dealing with topics such as diversity and race relations.

At least six schools will ask new students to read The Other Wes Moore, a popular choice for the past three years.

Author Wes Moore was an Army officer, Johns Hopkins graduate and newly chosen Rhodes Scholar when he saw that another Wes Moore, born a few blocks away in Baltimore, had been arrested for murdering a police officer.

Both were raised by black single mothers, but one Wes Moore was born to married, educated parents (his father died when he was 3).  His mother worked long hours to send her children to private school, then sent Wes to a military boarding school when she thought he was being influenced by street culture.

The other Wes was the son of a never-married woman and an absent father.

Also popular is Enrique’s Journey, which tells the story of a Honduran boy searching for his mother, who’s gone to the U.S. to find work.

Few colleges assign literature, but the University of Kansas will ask freshmen to read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

Hearing test predicts reading woes

The Associated Press

Testing how well preschoolers can recognize sounds such as “dah” predicts reading difficulties, according to a Northwestern study published in PLOS Biology.

Early intervention could help children develop their auditory processing skills, said senior author Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

The new study used an EEG to directly measure the brain’s response to sound, attaching electrodes to children’s scalps and recording the patterns of electric activity as nerve cells fired. The youngsters sat still to watch a video of their choice, listening to the soundtrack in one ear while an earpiece in the other periodically piped in the sound “dah” superimposed over a babble of talking.

The 30-minute test predicted how well 3-year-olds performed a language-development skill and how those same youngsters fared a year later on several standard pre-reading assessments, the team reported.

In tests of older children, the EEG scores correlated with their reading competence.

Why teach Shakespeare — or any literature?

Is our common culture centered on The Walking Dead rather than Hamlet?

Do we need to teach Shakespeare in high school? asks Megan McArdle on Bloomberg View. For that matter, why require students to read literature?

Recently, an English teacher argued against teaching Shakespeare (dead, white male) in the Washington Post and another teacher made the pro-Shakespeare case. Both “seem to think that reading literature is primarily about ‘understanding the human condition’,” notes McArdle.

But anyone who knows teenagers, or can recall having been one, knows that this is bosh. I read King Lear in high school and thrilled to its language and imagery, but it did not teach me what it is like to be an old man desperate for the love of his children, because 17-year-olds can’t really imagine their own mortality, much less the near-certainty that they will one day be old while still feeling that they are not quite done being 17.

. . . I read The Learning Tree in seventh or eighth grade, and it was certainly much more accessible than Richard III but did not noticeably increase the grasp that I or my white and privileged classmates had on the tragic history of race and poverty in America. Children are natural solipsists, and it is time, not literature, that shocks them out of it.

In the New Republic, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig makes the “progressive case” for teaching Shakespeare. “The alien distance of Shakespeare’s world is precisely why he deserves a permanent place in the literary canon, especially if one is interested in inculcating a broad social and political imagination into young adults,” she writes.

Understanding the past through literature is possible only for those who can read well, responds McArdle. “Most schoolchildren are not going to read Dickens fluently and with enjoyment, the way quite ordinary people did in the 19th century.” And reading Dickens is a lot easier than reading Shakespeare.

Students can’t understand modern literature fully unless they have some familiarity with Shakespeare, the Bible and other classic texts, McArdle believes. But many people don’t want to read literature.  “Only about half of all Americans read a book for pleasure last year, and most of them were not reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

What remains is a sort of stubborn belief that people ought to study literature because it is somehow good for them: because it is worthwhile to force them to read things that are hard, so that they can learn to do things that are hard; because it will make them a more educated and refined sort of person (which is to say, because it has snob value); or because it gives everyone a common cultural language that they can speak together.

. . . I rather suspect that for many people, the chief effect is to inculcate a hatred of reading.

Snob value is worthless, she adds, and “what common culture we do share is more likely to be found in hip-hop songs and Walking Dead episodes than the monologues of Hamlet.”

McArdle was an English major.

On teaching English

After teaching for 10 year at a large public high school in New Jersey, Nick Ripatrazone has 55 Thoughts for English Teachers.

Teach Sylvia Plath's poetry -- not just her death, advises Ripatrazone.

Teach Sylvia Plath’s poetry — not just her death, advises Ripatrazone.

To start with, “you need to love words,” he writes. “You don’t need to love a certain type of book or a particular writer, but you need to love letters and phrases and the possibilities of language. You will spend most of your days dealing with words, and students can sense if words do not bring you joy.”

“Create meticulous plans for each day,” he adds, “but be alive in the classroom.”

“Teaching is performance, but not the performance of theater; there needs to be genuine interaction,” writes Ripatrazone. Students “can tell if you are putting on a show.”

Number 55: “For some students, you are their only light.”