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Sunday, July 27, 2014

NY Times obsesses about math again; every kid loses


I have a confession to make. I did graduate admissions in computer science for more than 25 years. The first thing I looked for was the applicant’s math GRE score. I eliminated anyone under 96th percentile. (Also, to add to my confession. I majored in Mathematics in college.) 

Why did I use this measure? Because ability to reason mathematically is an indicator of rigorous thinking, exactly the same kind of reasoning needed in Computer Science. Does that mean I needed my students to know mathematics? Not at all. Mathematics never came up in any way in our PhD program.

I mention this because there seems to be a national obsession with teaching mathematics and with math test scores. This is especially true when one reads the New York Times. Here are two articles published just this week:

Don’t Teach Math, Coach It


Why Do Americans Stink at Math?


The first article is by a math professor who wishes his kid liked math as well as he likes baseball. It has no business being in the Times except that the Times seems a bit obsessed with math. The second article is really about how to teach better but the math panic headline is obviously exciting stuff to the Times.

Here is one from a month ago:

Math Under Common Core Has Even Parents Stumbling


Naturally the Times draws the wrong conclusion from their own article. Instead of realizing that Common Core math is out of the scope of even the parents of their own children, it goes on about teaching methods so that kids will do better at Common Core.

And the of course, we have the real stuff:

American 15-Year-Olds Lag, Mainly in Math, on International Standardized Tests


There is an international math competition going on and the Times wants the U.S. to win. We also want to win the bobsled competition.

It is time to be honest about what is really going on. Why is math important?

It isn’t.

(Now all the math teachers can tell me I am crazy, as they usually do.)

Why are math test scores important? All you need to know is here:

Harvard College announced Thursday that it has accepted 2,023, or 5.9 percent, of 34,295 students applying for admission to the Class of 2018.

I didn’t really want to read 300 applications for Computer Science when I did admissions. So I took the easy way out. I relied on a simple but reliable metric. If you do well on an absurd math test, then it means you will work hard and can think logically, both of which are important qualities for a Computer Science PhD student.

Harvard cannot read 35,000 applications (nor can Yale, Princeton etc.) So they need test scores. The test makers cannot read millions of well thought out answers to complex questions, so they need multiple choice tests. No one needs any of these tests to be about mathematics  (I assume you the admissions people, don’t know algebra or calculus either.)

But, mathematics has a really good property. There are correct answers. Ask applicants what we should do about ISIS or the Ukraine and you can’t use multiple choice tests to judge the responses. Someone would have to actually read student’s answers. And there would be no “right” answer.  2 +2 really does equal 4. So math wins. And multiple choice tests win. And all our kids lose.

Our kids learn to hate school (because math is boring to most.) They lose self-esteem (because they “aren’t good at math.”)  And, what schools teach continues to be irrelevant to the real needs of children.

How about instead of math we teach how to get along with other people? How abut teaching personal financial management. Teach kids how to get a job. Teach them   to learn real skills (pick any of 1000). Teach them how to raise a child or  how to eat properly. Teach them how to negotiate or how to speak well, or how to plan well.

Ok, enough. Math will win every time for the reasons I stated above and the New York Times (undoubtedly populated by editors who majored in in English and were “bad at math” will continue to make the country hysterical about why Finland or China have better math scores than we have. I have only one question. Are kids (or adults) happier in those countries?

Silly question. Who cares about that?



Monday, July 21, 2014

E-learning has failed. Time to get rid of it (or at least do it right).


It’s about time. Someone has finally noticed that the training industry is failing at its job:

Learning and development failing to deliver for two-thirds of UK organisations, study finds



There is nothing new here of course. In 1989 when I started the Institute for the Learning Sciences (ILS), our mission was primarily to fix the mess that training had become. Our first sponsor was Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). Their problem was simple enough. Their training was delivered primarily through what they called FGBs. (You figure out what the F stood for, the GB part was Green Books.) These training manuals told you everything you needed to know in order to work at Andersen. Readings were followed by multiple choice tests and other exercises. Other companies soon asked ILS for help and we saw the same problems every time:

1.   Their training was deadly dull
2.  Their training was perfunctory (you just took it so a box could be checked that you had completed it)
3.  No new skills were learned or practiced
4.  The learning methodology was reading
At ILS we able to build simulations, using Goal Based Scenarios, that allowed trainees to practice the skills they were trying to learn, within a fictional scenario that was engaging.

We were doing fine, more and more companies were signing up, and then something terrible happened: The WEB.

The web made it possible for training departments to spend much less money and yet appear as if they were doing something new and modern. Eventually training on the Web got to be called e-learning, but what was meant by e-learning was the FGBs plus cute pictures and animations.

Now let’s look at what the UK’s Training Magazine has found:

1. Only 33 per cent of those involved in designing and delivering L&D said it had a lasting impact on their people or organisation.

2. Nearly half (49 per cent) said their L&D function could do more to improve its effectiveness.

3. Despite the growing popularity of e-learning, practitioners have reservations around its effectiveness in delivering lasting improvement in knowledge and skills.

4. Less than one in ten rated webinars, audio learning or online virtual learning as effective and only 12 per cent said mobile learning packages for smartphones or tablets were effective.

5. Action learning was rated as the most effective L&D practice whether this was through on- the-job training (69 per cent), coaching-based learning (57 per cent), business simulations (43 per cent) or computer-based games (38 per cent).

So e-learning doesn’t work? Shocker. I think I said that here:

Schank: "El 'e-learning' actual es la misma basura, pero en diferente sitio"


What I said was: “e-learning is the same garbage just in a new medium.”

E-learning is dead and good riddance. MOOCs aren’t dead yet, but they soon will be. They both have the same fatal flaw: an attempt to do exactly what was done before, but in a new medium: the computer.

What has been done before in education at all levels has been a lot of telling, followed by quizzes, to see if a student/trainee can temporarily memorize what they just read or heard.

The real question in learning is how to actually attain new abilities. For this there is only one answer: PRACTICE.

The computer should be used to make practice realistic and engaging, with the possibility of failing and being helped to see things in a new way after failing. The practice should be fun, interesting, exciting, challenging --- not boring and perfunctory. Or to re-consider my four points above:


1.   The training should be exciting and challenging.
2.  The training should be a natural part of one’s job.
3.  New skills must be learned and practiced.
4.  The learning methodology must be doing.

Enough with e-learning. It was always simply an attempt to go back to doing training the way it had been done in the FGBs. Just like MOOCs are more boring lectures masquerading as something new and hi-tech.

There are new things to do in education and training. We could do them. Or if we want to go back to old methods, go back even further to apprenticeships. Those actually worked.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The World Cup of Testing; Colombia loses PISA: nation mourns

I recently spoke at a meeting in Bogota, Columbia, sponsored by SENA which is an organization that promotes technical training that leads to useful employment. I had spoken there before and was happy to return since places like SENA are important in the battle against the idea that all students must have an “academic” education.
But, I soon discovered, that Columbia was in an educational existential crisis because they had scored last in the PISA tests. Most Americans have never heard of PISA tests but the rest of the world has. There is a weird competition going on between countries about success at PISA.
Here, courtesy of Wikipedia are the 2012 rankings (and scores) in mathematics:

Maths

1
pastedGraphic.png Shanghai, China
613
2
573
3
pastedGraphic_2.png Hong Kong, China
561
4
560
5
554
6
pastedGraphic_5.png Macau, China
538
7
536
8
535
9
531
10
523
11
521
12
519
13=
518
13=
518
15
515
16
514
17
511
18
506
19
504
20=
501
20=
501
22=
500
22=
500
24
499
25
495
26
494
27
493
28
491
29
490
30
489
31
487
32
485
33
484
34=
482
34=
482
36
481
37
479
38
478
39
477
40
471
41
466
42
453
43
449
44
448
45
445
46
440
47
439
48
434
49
432
50
427
51
423
52
421
53
413
54
410
55
409
56
407
57
394
58
391
59=
388
59=
388
61
386
62=
376
62=
376
64
375
65
pastedGraphic_64.png Peru


My reaction to tests is one of contempt. Why do countries willingly engage in this competition? Why is testing in any way relevant to real education for life? We all assume it is. My reaction to tests as a kid was to simply to not care about them. But in those days we weren’t terrorizing kids, parents and teachers about them. 

Yesterday an article appeared about Sweden (I tweeted it) saying their schools were a mess because they had low PISA scores. The acknowledged winner in PISA is Finland which is just a little odd because a check of the scores shows that they are not the winners. I could care less about this game but Colombia was so upset about it that they invited two representatives from Finland to this meeting as well, of course, as well as a representative from China, the country that is actually winning. The World Cup was going on while this meeting was going on, and one couldn't help but notice the analogy between them.

To get a better perspective I have selected one question from the PISA sample tests available on line so that we can know what we are talking about here. Here they are, one reading question, one math question, and one science question. PISA scores do all three (even though I only showed math rankings above.):


Read the text and answer the questions which follow.
IN POOR TASTE
from Arnold Jago
Did you know that in 1996 we spent almost the same amount on chocolate as our Government spent on overseas aid to help the poor?
Could there be something wrong with our priorities?
What are you going to do about it?
Yes, you.
Arnold Jago,
Mildura
Source: The Age Tuesday 1 April 1997
Arnold Jago's aim in the letter is to provoke


Guilt
Amusement
Fear
Satisfaction





LICHEN
A result of global warming is that the ice of some glaciers is melting. Twelve years after the ice disappears, tiny plants, called lichen, start to grow on the rocks.
Each lichen grows approximately in the shape of a circle.
The relationship between the diameter of this circle and the age of the lichen can be approximated with the formula:
pastedGraphic_65.png
where d represents the diameter of the lichen in millimetres, and t represents the number of years after the ice has disappeared.
Ann measured the diameter of some lichen and found it was 35 millimetres.
How many years ago did the ice disappear at this spot?
Show your calculation.

BUSES
A bus is driving along a straight stretch of road. The bus driver, named Ray, has a cup of water resting on the dashboard:
pastedGraphic_66.png
Suddenly Ray has to slam on the brakes.
Ray's bus is, like most buses, powered by a petrol engine. These buses contribute to environmental pollution.
Some cities have trolley buses: they are powered by an electric engine. The voltage needed for such an electric engine is provided by overhead lines (like electric trains). The electricity is supplied by a power station using fossil fuels.
Supporters for the use of trolley buses in a city say that these buses don't contribute to environmental pollution.
Are these supporters right? Explain your answer.

My main reaction to these test questions is “I don’t care” which would have been my reaction as a kid as well. It is easy to see why countries like Colombia do poorly on them. (Peru is actually last on all three sections in the 2012 Wikipedia article.) The questions are about issues (with a strong environmental bias in every question) that might not be on the mind of your average Peruvian or Colombian. These are countries with populations often tucked away far from the major cities that have difficulty getting any real education out to the provinces. These are also countries whose issues should be more focussed on better health, more jobs, and a lot less concerned with preparing kids for a university.
But getting a more realistic focus for schools away from academics and the obsession about college admittance gets more difficult with tests like PISA getting all the schools’ attention.
The Finland people at this meeting admitted that it was much easier doing well at the PISA test when you had a very small and homogeneous country. Still the Colombians wanted desperately to learn from the Finns who really had nothing relevant to tell them.
Testing has become a major industry and Pearson is always lurking ready to make more money on test prep and grading tests, not to mention making them. And, yes, Pearson was at this meeting as well. When I said I would skip what Pearson had to say because they were evil, I got a hearty round of applause.

We really need to stop this testing obsession and get on with letting kids try out things that appeal to them and help them get good at them. Every student needn’t learn the same stuff stuff. Kids have different interests. The best thing we can do for kids is to help them explore what fascinates them. But with PISA lurking we can’t let that happen. Losing the World Cup (in testing) is a horrible possibility apparently.