Articles I Never Finished Reading, Dept.

This one is on how a school changed to personalized learning. Follows the typical formula of such articles. First disparage the traditional model of education:

“Teachers were all feeling a little frustrated. We were craving a change,” Moola recalls. “Our school just wasn’t structured to provide the kind of higher-order thinking our students needed.”

Translation: Traditional model doesn’t require any higher-order thinking.

“Today, instead of simply memorizing facts for a test, students dive deeper into subjects that interest them. Textbooks and worksheets no longer dominate, as educators employ multiple instructional models. Smaller class sizes allow for more time for one-on-one instruction.”

Translation: Traditional model is just rote memorization. Worksheets and textbooks are bad.

“Best of all, the lifeless classroom setups are gone, and learning spaces have been reconfigured with moveable furniture and walls so that when classroom subjects overlap, teachers can combine lessons. Students rotate through these areas, which fosters a more collaborative learning space. “They can’t hide in the classrooms anymore. Every kid is involved in every lesson, answering every question,” Moola says. “

Translation: Classrooms are bad. Fixed desks are bad. Individual subjects are bad. Traditional models mean students are not involved in lessons.

Next, talk about how great personalized learning is, compared to the traditional model:

“The general idea behind personalized learning is that the fixed time, place, and curriculum of traditional classrooms is ill-suited to meet the demands of a diverse student population that has a wide range of learning needs. Many schools have leveraged sophisticated software programs that allow students to set their own pace and delve more deeply into specific interests, often in a blended learning setting, or — as the cliche goes— one that “meets them where they are.” “

Heard it before. In the 60’s it was programmed learning and “teaching machines”. Oh, and what does “diverse student population” mean? Does it mean a student body that includes those who can’t afford tutors or outside learning centers?

And what does a model of personalized learning look like?

“An individual student receives a portion of their instruction online and then is rotated through small groups, either to work independently or to collaborate with fellow students. Later, the student and the teacher meet face-to-face to address and analyze the student’s struggles or successes.

“With this model, every student is answering a minimum of ten questions on every single topic,” says Schreiber. “I know within minutes that a student doesn’t understand a particular concept. In years past, I really had no idea what their level of knowledge was until I gave them a test a couple of weeks down the line.”

“Project-based learning is integrated from the outset — not offered up as “dessert,” Moola says. As a result, students continually build skills and take ownership of their learning.”

Bottom line: Read the comments. Not many people are buying into this Zuckerberg financed vision of education.

The 21st Century Workplace Model of Education

There’s a new “study” out (which will soon be pointed to by various reformers and edu-pundits as “research shows” in their various diatribes) that purports to instruct teachers how to make their classrooms happier. In fact it is called “How to Create Higher Performing, Happier Classrooms in Seven Moves: A Playbook for Teachers”

The playbook/study explores why companies such as Zappos, Geico, and Google
are ranked among the best places to work in terms of happiness and success. It extrapolates what the Googles of the world are doing to what teachers should be doing in classrooms.  This is all done to “improve their students’ happiness and performance, not to mention their graduates’ readiness to work in America’s top organizations someday.”

I’ll save you the time of reading this “study” about how classrooms should look more like Google and just give you the bare bones version of it.  One hallmark of one of the many sub-classes of ed reformers is that they believe that the traditional model of education worked only for the industrial age to prepare students for mind-numbing work in factories and to be cooperative unquestioning workers. This is sometimes called the “factory model” of education.  Even though the traditional mode of teaching predates the industrial revolution, this particular narrative has gained momentum and proves the adage that if you repeat nonsense long enough, it is taken as truth.  Those who dispute it are often categorized as naysayers (or in modern parlance, “trolls”).

The study states at the outset that:

“[T]here’s a growing sense that classrooms aren’t cutting it for all students, not just those in fragile circumstances. Too many graduates can’t find work, and employers can’t find the right people to hire. Teachers can see that their schools are not consistently producing the types of graduates that today’s workplaces can readily employ. That’s why in this past decade teachers have voiced increasing concern about the need to move beyond basic reading, writing, and math and help students develop high-order skills like critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication—the so-called “21st-century skills” that a knowledge economy demands.”

Thus, in the modern incarnation of how schools should be run, the factory model of education has been replaced by the 21st century workplace model. As stated in the study, “Many students will one day look for jobs in workplaces that embrace these management principles. Classrooms would do well to prepare students by resembling future workplaces more intentionally.” And what better protege of a 21st century workplace is there than Google and companies like unto it?

What this paper does is then lay out how schools should be run, modeled on companies like Google.  You’ll find the old familiar refrains of “working in teams”, “collaboration”, “creativity” and of course “critical thinking”.  Teachers shouldn’t micromanage, but rather facilitate students to find out what they need to know on their own, using online resources. In other words, teachers shouldn’t teach, but should manage their classrooms the way good CEOs manage their companies.  And here is their prescription for what teachers should be doing in that vein:  (Comments in italics are mine and are my rather biased opinions. Ignore them if they bother you.)

1. Teach mindsets. Develop the mindsets of agency, creativity, growth mindset, and passion for learning. (And what better way than to use things like Google docs, Google Classroom, anything Google, anything internet, anything online, and nothing like a textbook or direct instruction?)

2. Release control. Provide content and resources that students are free to access without your direct instruction. This control gives them ownership, develops their agency, and frees up your time.  (Frees up your time to check your email, and search for more fulfilling work–like a tutor at Mathnasium, or Sylvan, Kumon, or Huntington.)

3. Encourage teaming. Foster peer-to-peer learning and dynamic, team-based collaboration.  (Because everyone knows that students learn better from each other than from a teacher at the front of the room. Particularly if your peers have benefitted from after school hours at Mathnasium, Sylvan, Kumon, or Huntington.  Hey, isn’t your tutor at Huntington someone who used to work at this Google-school? (See no. 2 above).  )

4. Give feedback. Create a culture of feedback so that students receive personal, frequent, and actionable feedback in the moment, in small groups, and in one-on-ones.  (I am assuming that such feedback does not include things like “You need to learn your times tables” and “Please do problems 1-15 odd on page 360 to get some practice with this procedure”.  Actually that last one couldn’t possibly exist because there would be no textbooks in this 21st century classroom.)

5. Build relationships of trust. Show interest and concern in students as individuals and trust in their ability to drive their own learning, given the right structures are in place. (And what might those “right structures” be? Actual instruction perhaps?)

6. Help students hold themselves accountable. Give them tools to set goals, track their progress,and follow through.  (Of course this would not include things like homework assignments, or tests would they?)

7. Hold yourself accountable. Use reflection time, peers, student surveys, and self-assessments to make sure that you are on track personally.  (See item 2 regarding working on your resume during reflection time.  Oh, and who puts together the questions for the student surveys of teacher performance?  Just asking.)

Education models have been toyed with since John Dewey.  With this report, it appears there’s no end to it.  It will be interesting to see if the Kumons, Sylvans, Huntingtons, and Mathnasiums follow suit.

Thinking like a mathematician…or someone like one

This article makes the point that the emphasis on getting students to “understand” by using alternatives to standard algorithms is a subterfuge. The purpose, the article contends, is to make students look smarter than they are.  They reason as follows:

The problem is this: “number bonds” is a counterfeit of the way kids who are genuinely good at math act by the time they get into elementary. While the other kids are counting on their fingers, kids who’ve been playing with numbers in their heads since they were two or three have figured out all the relationships and will take numbers apart to make it easier to solve. Not something stupid like seven plus seven, of course. More something like 115 + 115.

Having figured out that number-gifted children will do this as 100+100=200, 15+15=30, so 115+115= 230. This is quite nifty for a first-grader, but the left thinks it can skip all the work getting there. If they just teach perfectly normal, average children to think in terms of taking numbers apart, voila! Everyone will be a math genius!  

I don’t know that it’s “the left” who thinks this way–I have run across plenty of apolitical math reformers who seem to be on this wavelength– but I take the article’s point.   The thinking amongst these reformers is that one indication of “understanding” is whether a student can solve a problem in multiple ways. Reformers then insist on having students come up with more than one way to solve a problem. In doing so, they are confusing cause and effect. Forcing students to think of multiple ways or using “number bonds” does not in and of itself cause understanding.  They are in effect saying  “If we can just get them to do things that LOOK like what we imagine a mathematician does … then they will be real mathematicians.”

Robert Craigen, a math professor at University of Manitoba sees this type of thinking as wrong-headed: “Mathematicians don’t think that the ephemeral truths of higher reasoning have any validity when disconnected from the basic, mechanical foundation on which they are built.”

Maybe if we call the traditional approach something that sounds more appealing, we can get on with teaching math properly.  Something like “alternative math”.  What that alternative is (and to what it is an alternative) will be our little secret.



The Squeakiest Wheel, Dept.

According to this recent news article, a group of students at Sobrato High School in Morgan Hill, California, signed a petition objecting to the way math is taught at that school.  A number of complaints were raised.  One was that “the math department does not tailor its teaching needs to every learning style of its students.”

Another complaint was that students were forced to work in groups.

According to one student, “Common Core is based on groups, so the teachers aren’t as involved as they would be in another curriculum. Sometimes, we do not even get to ask questions at all from the teacher, we have to work in groups and ask others who are just as confused as we are. So if your members don’t care, then you’re out of luck.  Teachers won’t even give you credit for completing classwork if some of your group members didn’t do their work exactly as instructed, and they won’t help your group if no one knows how to solve a problem.”

A third complaint was  that “teachers move on from one lesson to another before students can even grasp the concepts; they don’t allow students to retake tests that often have subject matter that was not previously covered in class.”

The valedictorian of the graduating class commented that he tutored other students  “going over the basics that the teachers should’ve gone over.” He said he supports the common core curriculum, “but the basics must be taught before you delve into the deep thinking that common core requires.”

While I am not sympathetic to the theory of “learning styles”, I think this complaint will likely get the most attention. Despite the lack of evidence for the learning style theory, it has garnered credibility, starting in ed school and continuing beyond. It is to education as “blood letting” was to medicine, and there’s no sign of the belief abating despite papers having been written that challenge the notion.

Also interesting is the belief that Common Core requires that classes be conducted in groups. It is not surprising that this would come up, given that Common Core has been interpreted in ways that align with math reform ideologies and ineffective practices, despite the statement on the Common Core website that the standards do not dictate any particular pedagogy.

The comment about mastery of basics is also pertinent, but it is not clear whether the valedictorian was speaking about basics that should have been mastered in K-8, or whether he meant foundational aspects of algebra.  The article doesn’t mention what textbooks are used, but it does allude to an integrated approach being used at the school. This means that instead of individual subjects like algebra 1 and 2, geometry, pre-calculus and so forth, there is a blending of all of these topics at various levels within each year. Although integrated math has been used overseas successfully, it has had problems of implementation in the U.S.  Two such programs (that received grants from the NSF in the early 90’s for their development) are Core Plus, and Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP), both of which have received substantial criticism for their poor coverage and implementation. (See for example this article that describes the effects on student performance in college attributed to Core Plus in high school.)

I suspect that despite the credibility the petition might gain within the school’s administration by its mention of learning styles, that will not be enough to compensate for the complaints about curriculum, use of groups, and grading policies.  My prediction is that if the administration does anything, it will look focus on what they think is the squeakiest wheel and will integrate “learning styles” into its practices.  They will hold on to everything else, however, dismissing the students’ other complaints by relying on this old chestnut: “Since when do students know more than teachers”.

Such complaint is part of an arsenal of arguments school administrations use, which also include “What do parents know?”,”What do mathematicians know?” and “If you’re not a teacher you have no right to criticize.” Such arguments are as cherished as the concept of learning styles.  And like learning styles, they show no sign of abating any time soon.