Teach algebra via programming?

Schools can teach mathematical reasoning through software programming rather than conventional algebra classes,writes Julia Steiny on Education News.

In the 1980′s, when Providence, Rhode Island tried College Board’s Equity 2000, she served on the school board. “Business” and “consumer” math were eliminated in favor of algebra for all. The goal was to get everyone through geometry and advanced algebra. Providence assigned all sixth graders to pre-algebra.

The smart kids zipped through quickly, doing algebra in seventh, geometry in eighth and advanced algebra in ninth grade. Teachers created many levels of slower-paced classes for weaker students.

“In time, Equity 2000 got many more urban kids into college,” but it only helped “kids for whom low expectations were the only real problem,” Steiny writes. It will take “new approaches to lure students into the puzzles of mathematical reasoning.”

My now-grown sons, two of whom became software developers, have been arguing since high school that learning computer software programming is essentially learning algebra, only infinitely more fun, interesting, and useful.

Seymour Papert, author of Mindstorms, created Logo to enable young children to explore mathematical ideas.

It’s not just the teachers, stupid

Good instructional materials are as important for student learning as good teachers, yet there’s a “scandalous lack of information” about what schools are using and what’s most effective, concludes a new report from Brookings’ Brown Center,  Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness and the Common Core.

Students learn principally through interactions with people (teachers and peers) and instructional materials (textbooks, workbooks, instructional software, web-based content, homework, projects, quizzes, and tests). But education policymakers focus primarily on factors removed from those interactions, such as academic standards, teacher evaluation systems, and school accountability policies. It’s as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors give their patients.

Choosing better instructional materials “should be relatively easy, inexpensive, and quick,” compared to improving teacher quality, write Russ Whitehurst and Matthew Chingos. They urge states, the federal government, nonprofit groups and philanthropists to fund research on effectiveness. That would start by collecting data on what instructional materials schools are using.

 

Duncan pushes e-textbooks

The Obama administration wants an e-textbook in every student’s hand by 2017, writes USA Today.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants states to use textbook funding for digital learning materials and tablet computers. They’ll jawbone companies to lower prices to schools.

Administration officials say Web-connected instructional materials help students learn more efficiently and give teachers real-time information on how well kids understand material. “We spend $7 billion a year on textbooks, and for many students around the country, they’re out of date,” Genachowski says. In five years, he predicts, “we could be spending less as a society on textbooks and getting more for it.”

While up-front costs for tablet computers are high — new iPads start at $499 — he says moving from paper to digital “saves a ton of money” in the long run. “We absolutely want to push the process.”

Core Knowledge blogger Robert Pondiscio said the enthusiasm around educational technology is “magical thinking.”

“I wish there was even 10% as much thought as to what is going to come through these devices as in getting them into kids’ hands,” he says. “It’s not a magic bullet. We need to worry about what is on these tablets while they’re sitting in kids’ laps.”

Karen Cator, the U.S. Department of Education’s technology director, says tablet computers will extend the school day and engage students.

In my school days, I’d go home, finish my homework and read for three hours or so. OK, I was not normal, even among my studious friends. But I don’t think that gee-whiz devices will engage kids who don’t read well. Not for long, anyhow.

On a visit to my mother this week, I picked up a 1945 book on teaching remedial reading that must be left over from her master’s program in education back in the ’50s. (It advocates delaying phonics till second grade, after students have memorized a bunch of sight words.) Among the strategies for motivating struggling readers, the author suggested letting them use a typewriter to write the new words they’ve learned. Kids will be excited by the technology, the professor wrote.

I’m sure that e-books are the wave of the future, but schools should be careful not to spend before they’ve figured out how new learning materials will improve learning.  Do students need an iPad? A Kindle or Nook equivalent? Some new, cheaper device not yet available? Yes, publishers will lower prices to compete for market share, but schools need to make sure they’re not locked into one company’s products or blocked from using free open-source materials.

Kindergarteners at the keyboard

Kindergarteners spend an hour at the computer each day at KIPP Empower School in Los Angeles, writes Jill Barshay for the Hechinger Report. The “blended learning” experiment has worked so well, it’s spreading to other KIPP schools.

While 14 students play learning games on computers during two half-hour periods, the teacher works with the other 14 students in the class.

Principal Mike Kerr says 95 percent of his kindergarteners scored at or above the national average in math after the first year, while 96 percent scored at or above it in reading. Nearly all KIPP Empower students come from low-income families: Only nine percent arrived in kindergarten ready to read, according to a pre-reading test. By the end of the year, 96 percent of kindergarteners reached the proficient mark on the same test, Kerr says.

Computer time shouldn’t replace “active, hands-on, engaging and empowering” activities with “electronic worksheets and drill and practice,” says Chip Donohue, director of distance learning at the Erikson Institute in Chicago.

Each day, KIPP’s technology instructional assistant, Elisabeth Flottman, collects data from the educational software on each student and gives the information to teachers.

The software can report, for example, if a student has been struggling with beginning sounds, ending sounds or blending sounds. This can help the teacher zero-in on individual student needs. It also reports if a student sat idly at the computer for an extended period of time.

There isn’t much good learning software for kindergarteners, says Kerr.

Sherpa guides students

On Community College Spotlight:  Data-mining Sherpa software offers personalized guidance to students.

Tutoring software that cares

Tutoring software that senses the student’s emotions is being tested by researchers, reports Education Week.

It’s not clear yet that sensitive software will produce better results, but one experiment by University of Massachusetts and Arizona State researchers boosted the pass rate on state geometry tests by 10 percent.

The system picks up on students’ emotional states through hundreds of sensors embedded in the computer, students’ chairs, and other aspects of the students’ learning environment.

Sensors worn like a bracelet around the wrist detect changes in students’ pulse and in moisture levels on the surface of the skin. Sensors embedded in the chair cushions identify nine different postures a learner might take. Leaning forward, for example, suggests engagement, while a student leaning to the side might be bored or frustrated. On the computer mouse, pressure-sensitive sensors signal whether a student is squeezing harder in possible frustration.

The researchers also collect data on students’ emotions through a video camera embedded on the computer. It trains its focus on the student’s eyebrows, mouth, and nose, discerning whether the learner is smiling, frowning, or yawning.

The tutor can identify changes in students’ moods more than half the time, researchers say.  Animated tutors “mirror those emotions and offer an appropriate response,” emphasizing the importance of effort.

What the researchers have found in some of the studies so far is that the emotion-sensitive tutors, besides boosting students’ average achievement, seem to lead to improvements in the way that students think about math and their own math abilities. They are more likely after their tutoring sessions to agree, for instance, with statements saying “mathematics is an important topic” and to believe they are good at it. Students also seem to get bored with the tutor less quickly than they do with the unenhanced system.

The emotion-sensing tutor worked best for girls, low achievers and special-education students.

Pentagon plans virtual parents

When Sgt. Dad or Lt. Mom can’t call home via phone or the Internet, their children will be able to  communicate with a virtual parent — if a new Pentagon project works as planned.

It’s a bit Orwellian, notes  Medgadget. Just a tad.

From the DOD project overview:

We are looking for innovative applications that explore and harness the power of advanced interactive multimedia computer technologies to produce compelling interactive dialogue between a Service member and their families via a pc- or web-based application using video footage or high-resolution 3-D rendering. The child should be able to have a simulated conversation with a parent about generic, everyday topics. For instance, a child may get a response from saying “I love you”, or “I miss you”, or “Good night mommy/daddy.”

The proposal asks for “convincing voice-recognition, artificial intelligence, and the ability to easily and inexpensively develop a customized application tailored to a specific parent.”

If the father or mother dies, will Virtual Parent 2.0 be able to step in? This is just too spooky for me.

Wired has more.