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Thursday, August 14, 2008

"engaged learning" (re-posted from Feb. 2008)

I realize that I have been barking up the wrong tree. Here I am trying to fix education when I suddenly realized that all you need is a good marketing campaign. Why do real change when you can just say that have done it?

It was tonight’s Presidential Debate sponsored by Cleveland State University that taught me this. Behind the speakers there is a sign that says: Cleveland State University: Engaged Learning. I noticed it because NBC has been using it for a backdrop in the last few days.

Now I know nothing about Cleveland State but I am quite sure that it has boring lectures, absurd requirements, many professors who don’t care, and students who are just looking to get through the system by jumping whatever hoops are put in front of them, just as is the case at every university I have ever known.

So I wondered if they actually did anything different at dear old CSU and I went to their website to find out. This is what engaged learning is:

At CSU, Engaged Learning means that whether you are a student, faculty member or staff, you can expect to be an active participant in your learning experience. You can expect to engage in ways that will differentiate your experience at CSU from older, larger, and less diverse learning institutions. You can expect your learning experience at CSU to be distinctive.

OK. Not bad. “How,” I wondered.

In four important ways I learned. From the website:

1. An engaged learning logo will be on all communications materials. CSU will unveil a new advertising campaign this Spring.
2. The $200 million-plus master plan is remaking the main campus of Cleveland State University
3. CSU offers more than 140 opportunities to be engaged on campus through a myriad of organizations formed around common interests.
4. A website for engaged learners where they can say what they like about their CSU experience.

And that’s it folks. No new kinds of courses. No new kinds of experiences so that courses and tests can be eliminated. No re-thinking of what college should be and what they students need to learn how to do. No change of any actual kind. Just money spent on advertising and buildings. Of course, this is real change from my experience. Yale, Stanford, and Northwestern don’t advertise (except for revenue producing programs.)

But the marketing phrase is so nice: engaged learning!

I wonder how much they spent on this in lieu of spending on building realistic learning environments.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Death to the Standardistas! (re-posted from Feb, 2008)

The more things change the more they stay the same. Or more accurately, the more we try to change things, the more people who misunderstand the problems in education try to keep things the same. Today’s case in point: entrepreneurship education.

Some months ago, we were able to gather some top business and academic people to sit for a day and do a high level design for a story centered, learn by doing, on line curriculum in entrepreneurship for high school, meant to take up the whole of one year. We heard about a foundation that was interested in funding entrepreneurship education so we sent them our design, which was, more or less an attempt to start a business in a Second Life kind of world and compete with other students in that world. Before that part, the students took on certain business analysis projects to get them ready, and in the final part they tried a real project on the web.

We were told by the foundation that looked at our design that we had not paid attention to the National Content Standards for Entrepreneurship Education!

Of course, we hadn’t. We had never heard of them. So, it was with some trepidation that I went on line to take a look. I say it this way because standardistas are always wrongheaded and evil. Why? Let me count the ways in which standards are a disaater.

1. They tell you what you must teach and therefore allow no possibility of doing things differently.
2. They are always testing-oriented.
3. They always say what the student must understand and must know and must be able to explain which is a code for we will tell him this and then he will tell it back to us.
4. They invariably do not allow for freedom on the part of the student to get interested in one thing while not being interested in another.
5. They are made by a committee that always insists on listing all the things any person in that field must know without realizing that knowledge comes after doing not before.

So, knowing my prejudices, now let me show you what I found. Here are some the skills listed that every students must have:

Explain the need for entrepreneurial discovery
Discuss entrepreneurial discovery processes
Use external resources to supplement entrepreneur's expertise
Explain the need for business systems and procedures
Explain the need for continuation planning
Value diversity
Conduct self-assessment to determine entrepreneurial potential
Maintain positive attitude
Explain the concept of human resource management
Explain the nature and scope of operations management
Explain the nature of effective communications
Address people properly
Treat others fairly at work
Interpret business policies to customers/clients
Use basic computer terminology
Compress or alter files
Explain the nature of stress management
Determine file organization
Explain the concept of scarcity
Explain the law of diminishing returns
Describe types of market structures
Read and interpret a pay stub
Explain legal responsibilities of financial institutions
Explain the rights of workers
Describe use of credit bureaus
Develop job descriptions
Encourage team building
Describe the elements of the promotional mix

There were well over one hundred of these. And, they would, if actually paid attention to, get my nomination for the most boring curriculum ever invented in a fundamentally learn by doing field. Further there would be lots of tests, each one saying explain this and describe that.

The lesson here is simple. As soon as standardistas get a hold of a curriculum it will be turned into the garbage that has always been our school system – one where knowing, explaining, and describing, always win out over doing and learning from one’s own mistakes. The facts and noting but the facts.

Too bad. I kind of like this field. Kids really would have enjoyed running their own businesses in simulation and in reality.

Note to Mr. Foundation Head: After you blow millions on garbage entrepreneurial education by boring and testing students to death just like we have always done, and don’t produce even one more entrepreneur, and don’t deter even one more kid from dropping out, don't come crying to me

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Good News on Math? (re-posted from June, 15, 2007)

Today the New York Times published this editorial. I have abridged it and then I have a few questions to think about.

Good News on Math

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the teachers of New York are rightly proud of the city’s performance on this year’s state math tests. New York City students showed gains in every grade tested, outpaced students in most other of the state’s big cities and edged closer to the state performance average.
The new scores, which showed that 65.1 percent of city students are performing at or above grade level — are up from 57 percent last year.
The news is not as good for the city’s eighth graders. Only 45.6 percent of them were found to be proficient in math. These disappointing results suggest a need for stronger instruction in the sixth grade, where students may not be getting the skills they need to master more complex, middle school material.

And now for my questions:

1. Why is Mayor Bloomberg proud?
2. How would Mayor Bloomberg do on these math tests?
3. How would the writer of this editorial do on these math tests?
4. Why is the goal to prepare students for more complex middle school material?
5. What does mastering middle school math prepare students for?
6. Assuming the answer to #5 is high school material, what does that prepare students for?
7. Assuming the answer to that is college material what does that prepare kids for?
8. Given that most students never use the mathematics they learn in high school ever again the rest of their lives, why are we playing this silly game?
9. Could the answer to that be that Mayor Bloomberg wants to be able to say he did something important in education even if by any reasonable standard he clearly didn’t?
10. Since when does 35% of students failing constitute success at anything?
11. If every student in New York were good at mathematics in what way would our society be better off?
12. Why is the goal to beat other cities and states?
13. Is New York in competition with other cities and tests in some math contest we don’t know about?
14. What good happens in New York if it wins that competition?
15. What good happens to Mayor Bloomberg if New York wins that competition?
16. Why does the New York Times care about any of this?
17. Does the New York Times realize that every time they crow about nonsense such as this they make mathematics more and more important in the curriculum?
18. Are all the people at the New York Times experts in mathematics?
19. If they are experts in something else, like say writing, thinking, working at deadlines, preparing coherent reports, reasoning about hard political problems, and such, why wouldn’t those be important parts of the curriculum?
20. Could it be that when we emphasize mathematics we de-emphasize the very things the people at the New York Times are good at?
21. Does anyone care that the system is now totally insane?
22. Does the New York Times realize it is making matters worse in education with editorials like this?
23. Does Mayor Bloomberg or the New York Times actually care about education?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Wrong Problem, Wrong Solution (re-posted from Dec 2006)

Math and Science, oh my. What will we do? We don’t produce enough students interested in math and science. Something must be done. I hear this refrain so often my head hurts.

First my credentials: I was a math major in college. I got 98 on every math Regent’s test offered. (I lived in New York where testing ruled in the world in the 50’s too.) My mother always asked where the other two points went. I grew up to be a computer science professor. I am not a math phobe. But neither am I a math proponent. I never used math in my professional life. Never ever.

I always start any discussion on education by asking if the person I am talking with knows the quadratic formula. One out of hundred knows it. (The last few people I asked included the head of a major testing service, the secretary of education of a state in the US, various state legislators, and 200 high school principals. Then why do we teach this obviously useless piece of information to every student in the world? Because math is important, of course.

Really? Show me the evidence.

As a person who did graduate admissions for 30 years at three of the top ten universities in the country, I know what this hysteria is actually about. Nearly all applicants to graduate computer science programs (which is what I know – but it is true in most fields of engineering and science) are foreign nationals. We wonder why American kids aren’t interested in these fields – which is a reasonable enough question. But then we have come up with an extraordinary answer.

What we say is that we must teach math and science better in high school. There are now so many programs meant to do this it makes my head spin. Here are reasons why this is simply the wrong answer.

Do we really believe that the reason that there so many foreign applicants to US graduate programs is that they teach math and science better in other countries? China and India provide most of the applicants. They also have most of the people. And many of those people will do anything to live in the U.S. So they cram math down their own throats knowing that it is a ticket to America. Very few of these applicants are coming from Germany, Sweden, France or Italy. Is this because they teach math badly there or is it because those people aren’t desperate to move to the U.S.?

In the U.S., students are not desperate to move to the US, so when you suggest to them that they numb themselves with formulas and equations they refuse to do so. The right answer would be to make math and science actually interesting, but with those awful tests as the ultimate arbiter of success this is very difficult to do.

No change in education will ever happen in the US until the testing mentality is done away with. No average high functioning adult could pass them so why make kids do it? This makes no sense. What also makes no sense is the idea that math and science are important subjects. You can live a happy life without ever having taken a physics course or knowing what a logarithm is.

On the other hand, being able to reason on the basis of evidence actually is important. Thinking rationally and logically is important. Knowing how to function in a world that includes new technology and all kinds of health issues is important. Knowing how things work and being able to fix them and perhaps design them is important.

Lets get serious. We don’t need more math and science. We need more people who can think.

We need to teach job skills, people skills, and reasoning skills. And we need to make education exciting and interesting. We need performance tests not competence tests. If we did all that we would get more Americans interested in math and science because we would get more Americans actually interested in being in school.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Accountability! (re-posted from Dec, 2007)

The following is from an article on the front page of the New York Times (Dec 23, 2007):
Mr. Obama, for instance, in a speech last month in New Hampshire denounced the law (NCLB) as “demoralizing our teachers.” But he also said it was right to hold all children to high standards. “The goals of this law were the right ones,” he said.
When Mr. Edwards released an education plan earlier this year, he said the No Child law needed a “total overhaul.” But he said he would continue the law’s emphasis on accountability.
And at the elementary school in Waterloo, Mrs. Clinton said she would “do everything I can as senator, but if we don’t get it done, then as president, to end the unfunded mandate known as No Child Left Behind.”
But she, too, added: “We do need accountability.”
Accountability must play well in Peoria because every Democratic candidate is simultaneously for it while being against NCLB. The question is: how can you hold both positions?
Here is how. By not understanding the issue.
Accountability must mean to voters, I assume, that teachers will be measured by how well they teach their students. Those fearless Democrats, always willing to hop on an uncontroversial point of view, are all quite certain that the voters know what they are talking about. No matter how stupid NCLB is, no matter how mean spirited, no matter how awful for both teachers and students, its very horror rests on the premise that no one seems to be disputing, that the federal government has the right to tell the schools what to teach and to see if they are indeed teaching it.
How is this premise wrong? Let me count the ways:
1. It assumes that all schools should teach the same subjects
2. It assumes that some subjects are more important than other subjects
3. It assumes that all important subjects can be easily tested
4. It assumes that seeing who did better than whom in school is an intrinsic part of the educational process
5. It assumes that all children have the same educational needs

Needless to say, I have some problems with these assumptions and so should the Democratic Presidential candidates. I can excuse the voters for not understanding these issues, but I will not excuse President Bush and his cohorts, who I sincerely doubt give a hoot about education, nor will I excuse the Democratic challengers who should know better.
Let’s take them one by one.
all schools should teach the same subjects
Why is this wrong? Because kids in New York come from, and will live in, a different world than their compatriots in New Mexico. In New Mexico, I was asked if we could teach Casino Management and Land Use. Yes, we could, but not if there is federal accountability about algebra and twenty other subjects that make it impossible to fit these subjects in.
There is no right set of subjects. The fact that the President of Harvard in 1892 thought there were and thought he could say exactly what they would be in the 21st century does not make it true. (OK, probably he wasn’t thinking about the 21st century in 1892, but we all seem to think he must have been because we are still teaching the same stuff.)
some subjects are more important than other subjects
Yes, we have electives. But they don’t matter. Because accountability means making sure that we teach what does matter first. What matters? The stuff that we are holding people accountable for. Since this seems to be math and science these days, for no good reason I can discern, this means that we will get to the stuff that would excite kids and keep them in school and, horrors, might teach them some job skills, after we are done with the important stuff. Sorry candidates. I absolutely guarantee that none of you know the quadratic formula or the elements of the periodic table which is of course, the stuff of accountability since it is so easy to test. Then, how can that be the important stuff? How about how to see what voters are thinking and then say it to get elected? That is the important stuff in your lives. Why not teach that?
all important subjects can be easily tested

Yes, there are right answers in math. But are there right answers in whether we should invade Iraq? No? Does that mean we can’t teach how governments actually work and how to get reasoned arguments to be heard? Is there a right speech candidates should make? Does that mean we can’t ask students to give speeches because we can’t easily assess them? Do we only teach subjects for which there are clear right answers? We do now, which is one reason why school is a deadly experience for one and all and will remain so as long as accountability is the key word in government.

seeing who did better than whom in school is an intrinsic part of the educational process
Admit it candidates. It really is all about competition isn’t it? You are all the winners of the school competition. You went to Ivy League schools and did well. Well, hooray for you. I taught at Ivy League schools and I was profoundly unimpressed with the test taking, grade grubbing, students I found there. The goal of education is not to say who won and it is not to tell Harvard whom to admit. The goal is provide real world skills, some of which may not be so easy to assess until the graduate actually shows up in the real world.

all children have the same educational needs

There is a 50% drop out rate in many high schools because we have forgotten that not everyone is going to Harvard and that going to Harvard is not the goal of education. Some children simply need to learn about ethics and business and child raising and how the legal system works, how to take care of their health and how to understand when politicians are saying things that make no sense. Why wouldn’t those subjects be critical? I bet not one of you thinks any of those are more important than math and science. How about the student who has a passion for the environment, or doing social good, or being a good parent, or, perish the thought, running for office? Couldn’t we teach those subjects simply because students have said they want to learn them? Does every school have to be the same?

I have an idea. Why not just keep the federal government out of the education business and simply leave schools alone? Educators have enough trouble fighting the silly standards that colleges impose upon them without having to put up with whatever version of accountability you choose to proffer after your election.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Just the facts, ma’am (reposted from March)

Another brilliant revelation from our heroes in Washington :

“Students who complete Algebra II are more than twice as likely to graduate from college compared to students with less mathematical preparation.”

Would you like to know why this is true (and I have no doubt that it is true)? The answer is given further down in the article:

“The report also cited findings that students who depended on their native intelligence learned less than those who believed that success depended on how hard they worked.”

See, this is an easy one. If you work harder you get into college. Now the question is: why are we making the thing that students have to work harder at – Algebra II?

We know why this panel decided that. At stake is a $100 million federal budget request for Math Now and guess who was on the panel?

I dunno. People who might receive that funding would you guess? You betcha. A panel of university folks who are just dying for that grant money to be approved worked on a very well funded study that proved that the nation would not succeed without that grant money.

My favorite part of the Times’ article was the following:

Dr. Faulkner, a former president of the University of Texas at Austin, said the panel “buys the notion from cognitive science that kids have to know the facts.”

No, Dr Faulkner, as a graduate of your esteemed institution, and as a founder of the field of Cognitive Science, let me suggest, with all due respect, that it is you who needs to know the facts.

The first fact is that you are a chemist, and I am pretty sure don’t really know much about Cognitive Science.

The second fact, is that there is plenty of work in Cognitive Science that shows that background knowledge helps one interpret the world around one, and thus reading, for example, is facilitated by understanding something about the world you are reading about.

The third fact is that there is no evidence whatsoever, that accumulation of facts and background knowledge are the same thing. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Facts learned out of context and apart from actual real world experience that is repeated over and over are not retained.

The fourth fact is that kids don’t like math much and it is clear why. They find it boring and irrelevant to anything they care about doing. If you think math is so important, then why not teach it within a meaningful context, like business, or running a school doing the kind of math you had to do to do that – which certainly wasn’t algebra II. There is plenty of evidence that shows that teaching math within a real and meaningful context works a whole lot better than shoving it down their throats and following that with a multiple choice test.

The fifth fact is that there is no evidence whosoever that says that a nation that is trailing in math test scores will somehow trail in GDP or whatever it is you really care about. This is just plain silly, but we keep repeating the mantra that we are behind Korea in math as if it has been proven that this matters in some way. Nothing of the sort has been proven.

The sixth fact is that there are lots of vested interests who need to keep teaching math. Let me name them – tutoring companies, testing companies, math teachers, book publishers, and many others who make lots of money when people are scared into thinking that their kid won’t get into college because he or she is bad at algebra II.

The seventh fact is that nearly every grown adult has forgotten whatever algebra he or she ever learned to pass those silly tests, so it is clear that algebra is meaningless for adult life. I ask every important person in public life that I meet to tell me The Quadratic Formula. No one has ever been able to do so.

The eighth fact is that any college professor who is honest will tell you that algebra almost never comes up in any college course, and when it does come up it usually needn't be there in the first place.

I know this is a hopeless fight, but algebra really matters not at all in real life and the country will not fall behind in any way if we simply stop teaching it. That is not a fact, it is just a former math major’s, UT graduate’s, and Computer Science professor’s, point of view.