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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Do we invest in preschools or prisons? Really Mr Kristof?

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times writer who writes interesting columns about human rights issues around the world, every now and then veers off into talking about education, a subject he clearly doesn't understand. Maybe he thinks he understands it because he went to Harvard, or maybe the Times is telling him to push their schooling agenda. I don’t know. What I do know is this week he wrote the following column:

The headline of this column was:

Do We Invest in Preschools or Prisons?

Really? Is that our choice? Lately the Obama administration has been pushing pre-kindergarten as something the government should invest in and force  upon all children. Just what kids need -- more school. The idea that the choice is preschool or prison is an interesting one. It comes from the fact that people in prisons are disproportionally undereducated, poor, and not likely to be white. While all of this may be true, pre-kindergarten would not solve the problem.

As it happens, my granddaughter is in pre-K right now. The other day she recited the planets to me. She had no idea what a planet was, but she knew their names. Well, that will certainly keep her out of prison. Oh, wait. She wasn’t going to be going to prison because she has caring, educated parents and she is not poor. 

How is pre-K supposed to fix the very serous problem of the giant underclass that we have in this country? One way to understand this issue is to listen to the parents of these underclass children speak. They sound as you would expect, not educated and incapable of speaking English clearly or forming coherent thoughts. But would they speak better English and have clearer thinking if we made them go to school more? 

Actually, adults who have these at risk children (who need pre-K) did go to school.   Typically they are high school graduates who still can’t speak well, can’t think clearly, and they cannot parent well either. Probably they weren’t parented well themselves. School did not fix this.

Why is that?

It is because the high school curriculum they took is absurd. The issue is not teaching kids the names of the planets when they are four nor is it teaching them about amoebas or George Washington when they are fifteen. The issue is teaching teenagers how to manage their own lives. Could we teach them how to be parents? Could we teach them how to make a living? Could we teach them how to have better human relationships? No, clearly we cannot, because that is not what high school teaches.

Mr Obama and Mr Kristof don’t seem to understand this because there is a school lobby run by Bill Gates and the testing companies that has effectively taken over education. That lobby wants to sell more school, more tests, and less freedom to determine what it is you may want to learn about.

Let’s imagine for a moment that instead of teaching every teenager algebra we taught them how to reason clearly about their own lives. Let’s imagine that instead of teaching them English Literature and asking them to write papers about what DIckens’ main themes were, we taught them to speak well, diagnose their problems, and write a clear plan about how to accomplish something they want to accomplish. Let’s imagine that instead of teaching them to memorize facts about plants or planets we taught them to take care of their own health needs or taught them to reason from evidence.

Mr Kristof, here are some curricula, any one of which would be better than what we have in our high schools now. 

  1. Criminal Justice
  2. Software Development  
  3. Run a Small Business
  4. The Music Business
  5. The Legal Curriculum
  6. Create a Webzine  
  7. Robotics 
  8. Medical Decision Making 
  9. Scientific Reasoning
  10. Community Planning
  11. The Fashion Industry
  12. Engineering
  13. Computer Networking
  14. Homeland Security
  15. Medical Technology
  16. Construction
  17. Computer Technology
  18. Television Production
  19. Real Estate Management
  20. Landscape Architecture
  21. The Banking Industry
  22. Automobile Design
  23. Architecture
  24. Biotechnology Lab 
  25. Film Making
  26. Travel Planning
  27. Financial Management
  28. Parenting and child care
  29. Animal care
  30. Urban Transit
  31. Hotel management
  32. Health care industry
  33. Food industry
  34. Graphic Arts

Make better parents and you won’t have to shove pre-K down everyone’s throats. Keep teaching more math and science and you will need more prisons. Why? Because only a small percentage of students will care about, or will succeed at, math and science. Teach parenting and job skills in high school, and you will need less prisons.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Milo fights the Common Core again -- this time his mother responds

my daughter is getting upset now; she wrote
this column; for some background on her -- 
she has written a book, published 
many articles, and designs web sites

here is a link to some articles

and here is a link to web sites she built for me

Every night when Milo asks for help with his homework I get a little nervous.  As long as he needs help with a researching a report or writing something or practicing spelling words I feel on safe ground - these are things I know how to do -  but I've been waiting for the day when I have to tell him I simply don't know the answer to something.  That day turned out to be yesterday.

Milo reported that his class had taken a practice "assessment" (they don't call them tests because they don't want the kids to freak out about being tested all the time, so they call them assessments so that instead the kids can eventually freak out about being assessed all the time).  He had gotten two answers wrong on the assessment so his assignment was to change the answers to the correct ones and explain why those were the correct answers.  Since he wasn't sent home with an answer sheet this meant his homework was really to guess at the correct answer, make sure I agreed, and then come up with an explanation for the answer we'd agreed upon.

Much to my dismay, the assessment he brought me wasn't math homework, which I still feel pretty confident with since we're at a 3rd grade level, but reading comprehension.  I totally, totally suck at reading comprehension.  Or, more accurately, I suck at reading comprehension "assessments."  I scored the same on the math and verbal SATs despite the fact that I never really got math and spent huge quantities of my childhood with my nose in a book. 

I took Milo's reading comprehension assessment and sighed.  This was going to be okay now, right?  After all, I'm an adult.  I read lots of books and one assumes I comprehend them or I would have stopped reading long ago.  Not only that, Simon and Schuster and the New York Times agree that I'm a writer.  No published author could be bad at reading comprehension, right?

The first thing I did was look over the questions and the answers, which was how I always approached reading comprehension as a kid.  The passages they give you to read are always so mind-numbingly boring that my usual strategy was to see if I could answer the questions without actually reading the passage (wait, maybe that explains why I never did well on these things ... but I digress).  My heart sank as I realized in order to help Milo with his assessment I was going to have to actually read the passage.  It turned out to be a mind-numbingly boring passage about a kid who went to camp to learn to swim.  He didn't want to be in the group with the non-swimmers, even though he couldn't swim, so he kept asking when he could be moved up into the group for swimmers.  Day after day he goes to the camp, does the stuff he's supposed to do, and asks if he can be moved up to the group with the kids who can swim.  Eventually he learns to swim and gets moved up into the group.  The end.  ARE YOU STILL AWAKE??  Just checking.

So the first question Milo had gotten wrong was something like: 

The kid in this story is:
a. lazy
b. keen
c. reckless
d. angry

Milo had put down that the kid was lazy. 

"I get that," I said to him.  "I totally get that.  You put down that he's lazy because he didn't want to have to do all the things he had to do to learn how to swim, right?"

"Yes," said Milo.  "He just wanted to go right to the group for kids who knew how to swim."

"Here's a tip that it took me a really long time to learn," I said.  "The answer is never that the main character is lazy.  Or mean, or evil, or a slob.  The main character in these things is always something nicer than that.  I can't explain why, but that's how they write them.  Even though you're right.  He is kind of lazy."

"So maybe it's reckless?"  Milo said.  

"Maybe," I said.  "I mean, anyone who doesn't actually take the time to learn to swim and just tries to swim is a little reckless.  It's not angry, though I could make an argument for why it could be angry.  Maybe he's angry about having to be in the group for non-swimmers."

"Is it angry?" Milo asked.

"It's not angry," I said.  "Let's look up what 'keen' means."  Milo was shocked that I didn't know what it meant.  I explained it's a word that no one has used in the last fifty years, so it makes perfect sense that it would appear in a reading comprehension assessment for eight year olds.  The definition for "keen" is 'confident'.  The answer was "keen."

We moved on to the next question.  And for the life of me I couldn't figure out the answer.  I found myself making an argument for every single answer.  They all seemed equally valid.  And then I remembered why I couldn't do reading comprehension as a kid.  No matter how hard I tried I couldn't stop arguing with the people who wrote the test.  I always felt like if they would just give me the chance to make my case in person I could convince them to see it my way.  I wanted to accompany my responses with long essays about how all answers could be right if viewed in the right way.  It wasn't that I didn't care.  It was that on some level I cared too much about writing and reading to fill in a letter on a bubble sheet and move on.  I always found myself editing the passages as I read them, thinking about how I would rewrite them.  As I read through the answers I saw them all as correct because writing is fluid and open to interpretation and that is what makes it such a joy to experience.  One person may see a kid in a story as lazy and another may see him as angry and they are both right, and if you don't understand that then you haven't comprehended anything about what you've read.

In the end I had to ask Steven what the right answer was.  He knew.  He always knows what the people who wrote the test are really asking for; it's a skill I will apparently never acquire.  

When I was a kid I took my failure at reading comprehension personally, as though the test takers were telling me that I'd never be a writer, that my love for reading was misguided, that the one thing I thought I was good at was a lie.  I don't take it that way any more, but there is still a small part of me that wants to print out the list of places I've been published and mail it to the makers of this assessment, along with a clearly thought out essay on why "lazy" could be the right answer.  Because really, it could.  Take another look, Common Core people.  Open your minds a little.  You might find the main character a little lazy.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Milo and the Park Slope Parents group meet Common Core; everybody loses (except Bill Gates and Big Pharma)

Milo has finally met the Common Core, that brilliant new basis of our education system that will kill traditional schooling better than anything I could propose.

Take a look at the math vocabulary words Milo and his third grade comrades had to memorize last week.

rectilinear figure
square unit
standard form
unit fraction
number line
Order of Operations
place value
area model
arithmetic patterns
Associative Property of Addition
customary system
Distributive Property
expanded form
fact family
Identity Property of Addition
line plot

Before I start getting upset here, let me just point out that vocabulary tests are not mathematics education. Now for the part where I get upset. 

My daughter sent this list to me because the Park Slope Parents group (this is an upscale part of Brooklyn, so parents are generally well off and well educated) was extremely upset by all this. It seems very few of the parents knew any of these mathematical terms. Now, I have to admit, I do know them (not sure what “expanded form” is though) because I majored in mathematics in college. That is where this stuff comes up. Even in that context, I never found any of it useful in my actual life. 

So, parents in Park Slope are busy learning math vocabulary to help their kids who have been confounded by Common Core. What the point of all this I am not sure. But here is something I am sure of. There is big money behind all this.

Today the New York Times printed the following:

I tweeted that article to my followers and one of them (the head of a Day School in New York) tweeted her favorite line from that article:

@rogerschank "A.D.H.D. diagnosis increased by 22 percent in the first four years after NCLB was implemented."

This is hardly a surprise for those of us who have been following the ADHD thing for years now. ADHD is a convenient diagnosis because it sells a lot of Ritalin and Big Pharma is happy; it quiets down unruly kids so the school is happy; and, it makes everyone much more focussed on testing so the big testing companies are happy. More Ritalin better test prep sales.

Common Core will surely help everyone make more money. But poor Milo. Milo suffers, big business wins.

Who cares about any of this mathematics anyway? Who needs it? 

Here is a homework question from Common Core that he had to do last week (among many others):


  1. Fred has 10 pears. He puts 2 pears in each basket.

  1. Draw an array where each column represents a basket of pears.
  2. Redraw the pears in each basket as a unit in the tape diagram. Label the diagram with known and unknown information from the problem.

2.Ms Meyer organizes 15 clipboards equally into 3 boxes. How many clipboards are in each box? Model the problem with both an array and a labeled tape diagram. Show each column as the number of clipboards in each box.

My daughter said that parents were watching you tube videos in order to figure out what any of this meant. Of course, it is now the parents who are doing the homework (as well as teaching mathematics that they themselves do not understand.)

Just in time for all this I read a good interview with a mathematician from Berkeley here:

This is his answer to one of the interviewer’s questions:
What is wrong with the way most of us are introduced to math?

The way mathematics is taught is akin to an art class in which students are only taught how to paint a fence and are never shown the paintings of the great masters. When, later on in life, the subject of mathematics comes up, most people wave their hands and say, "Oh no, I don't want to hear about this,
I was so bad at math." What they are really saying is, "I was bad at painting the fence."

So, Bill Gates, you have succeeded. At what or why you did it I do not know. But you will make every child and their parents miserable. You will create students who hate school (even more than they do now.) 
Bill and I, as it happens, have a mutual friend. My friend asked me if I wanted to meet Bill. I said “would he listen?” 
My friend said “no.”
My advice to parents: Fight Back. Refuse to drug your kids and refuse to have them take common core. As they used to say in the old days: “In Union there is Strength.”

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

So, you want to build an online learn by doing course; now you can; our new GBS tool is free; build away


The world of teaching and learning has changed, but as the saying goes “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

The media are full of stories about companies that are putting courses on line for universities which means that they are basically putting lectures on line. If you want to put your lectures on line and deliver them to large numbers of students, read no further as I have nothing to say about that (except to say that good lectures are typically just good entertainment, no one retains much from them. If you don’t believe me try re-telling a lecture you heard in college.)

What will change everything is something we call the GBS tool, the details of which will be explained later. The GBS tool enables anyone to build an online course that will teach a student to do something. What I mean by this is that the courses built using the GBS tool are not intended to convey information. The telling of information and testing to see if the student retained that information for a short period is an education model that has seen its day.

What will replace it?

When you learned to ride a bicycle, some older person held on to you when you started, guided you, gave you tips and eventually let you go on your own. This model of learning, guided practice, has been with us for a very long time. The “you listen while I tell you the latest theory and you take notes and then there will be test” model has been around for much less time. That model will go away when institutions that offer up the alternative model can find a way to exist financially. Right now lectures are money makers. (1000 students, one lecturer -- universities can do the math.)

The GBS tool allows anyone who wants to, build an online learning by doing course that includes guided practice and help from human mentors. In other words, the GBS tool lets you do on line what everyone does naturally with their own kids prior to sending them off to school.

Who is the GBS tool for?

There are many potential users of the tool.

1.    Professors, who know full well that students learn by doing and who would like to help students in their institution or possibly anywhere in the world, learn to do what the professor has expertise in doing.
2.    Teachers, who, although they may not have a lot of extra time on their hands, really have something they would like to kids to be able do, that they like to teach how to do, and would like to make their expertise available outside of school, inside of school, or wherever that skill might be sought after.
3.    Business experts, who would like to train employees or the general public to do something but are hampered by their training departments who want to do things the way they have always been done.
4.    Government employees, military officers, EPA officers, Parks department people, whomever, who’d like to train their people better but don’t have the budget to do it right and don’t know how to get started.
5.    Regular folks, who simply have something they would like to teach people how to do.

So how can you do this? First the good news. It doesn’t cost anything.  How is that possible? We have built this tool in order to change how people think about teaching. The tool is easy to use and will produce a high quality learn by doing course on line, if and only if, the person using the tool knows how to teach somebody how to do something that can be taught on line. (It would help if a user had read Teaching Minds first however so they don’t try to teach the same old stuff in the same old way with the tool.

How can the GBS tool be free? Let’s look at the five categories of users again.

Professors. You can have the GBS tool and use it inside your university. No cost. If you need help from us in the form of advice, we would charge you for our time. (We are a consulting company after all.)

Teachers. The same as professors. Use the GBS tool for your students and its free.  

Business experts. Nah. Not necessarily free. If you are teaching people in your company or other companies we offer only to drive down radically the cost of production of training. We will provide consulting (for a fee.)  If you sell what you built we will want a piece. If, on the other hand you want to give away your expertise to people outside of your company and you don’t charge them for it, then we expect nothing in return.

Government employees. We will deal with this on a case by case basis.

Regular people. Same deal. You can give it away.  

To see some courses built using the GBS tool, go here.

To use this new tool send an email here: describing who you are and how you will use it.

Courses can be any length, an hour, a year, it makes no difference. The GBS tool has within it advice from experts (in the form of short videos) who have been building GBSs for years. I am in there too.

Designing a good GBS is not easy. We have a range of services (course design consulting, fiction writing, video production, expert interviewing, art, and course review and editing, hosting) that we can provide (for a fee.)

GBS stands for Goal Based Scenario. It is an idea we have been writing about and doing for more than 20 years. To learn more about GBSs click on one or more of these.