Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Does Science or Mathematics Really Matter?

A young vibrant gifted urban science teacher expressed a concern to me yesterday. The teacher suggested that he feared being forced to teach "ELA" (English Language Arts) since that is all the district cares about given the testing mania destroying our nation's public schools.

The President, heads of corporations, pundits, politicians and demagogues of all stripe chatter-on endlessly about the need to improve math and science education. I agree. They even gave their concern an acronym, S.T.E.M. You know something is a serious priority when it has its own acronym, right?

I actually wanted to believe the hype that Science, Mathematics, Engineering, Technology, AND the arts would realize a renaissance in our public schools. Much of my career has been dedicated to this proposition.

That is why I have organized a low-cost, world-class, one-of-a-kind learning event for educators interested in S.T.E.M. for January 22, 2009 in Philadelphia, PA USA.

Constructing Modern Math/Science Knowledge is a one-day preconference before Educon 2.1. Some of my intellectual heroes - the people who inspired my career or taught me to understand the importance of computing - will lead small group minds-on experiences at the renowned Science Leadership Academy.

If you can't make it to Philadelphia yourself, please blog about the event and tell your colleagues about it too. They will thank you as do I.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Care to Really Understand Federal Education Policy?

In my humble opinion, Jo Boaler's, recent Education Week column, Where Has All the Knowledge Gone?
The Movement to Keep Americans at the Bottom of the Class in Math
, is one of the most important pieces of education journalism in some time.

Is this just a coincidence? Can President Bush really have been so badly advised as to ignore almost all of the research that could have informed the report, or was there something more deliberate at work? How acceptable is it for a government to control the forms of knowledge that are released to the public?

Dr. Boaler is a former Stanford University Mathematics Professor who clearly and succinctly documents how "science" and "research" are used as a blunt weapon by the United States Department of Education. Boaler describes how the President's National Mathematics Advisory Panel was constrained from publishing the best advice for improving mathematics education. Such ideological interference in mathematics education is consistent with the Reading First mess at the center of No Child Left Behind.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Modest Advice for a Conscientious Math Teacher

Dan Meyer's blog, dy/dan shares the thoughts, insecurities and efforts of a terrific young urban educator via words and remarkable videos. His blog is worthy of your attention.

Dan should me commended for making his thinking public and discussing issues rarely explored in public. A recent blog started out by wondering if Washington D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee's tactics and hostility towards teachers would be fruitful in the public schools of the nation's capitol.

Along the way, Dan asked a serious question about how to improve his students' geometry test scores, regardless of how each of us might feel about the value or use of standardized testing.

Here is my first, albeit incomplete, set of recommendations.

Dear Dan:

First of all, I wish to share my admiration for the sincerity and courage inherent in your question.
I got my 07-08 Geometry results back yesterday and they were not acceptable. Too many kids listing along at Basic levels, not enough kids rising to Proficiency.
My question to so many commenters here: what would you have me do with that data?

Asking this question is critically important. You can't be good at anything, much less teaching, without being reflective.

First, let's assume that the test actually attempts to assess "geometry." Many standardized tests give kids a score for something like "algebraic reasoning" when the test only included one question on the topic. It would also be nice if you continued to work with the same students tested. Having test results after the kids move on to another teacher is hardly useful as a corrective instrument.

Since you can't cure poverty or the other socioeconomic and cultural obstacles experienced by your students, solutions will need to be relegated to what you do in your classroom.

One mistake frequently made when confronting such issues as your geometry scores is to assume that blame lies with either a) the teacher or b) the student. There is a third player at work here - the curriculum. Why don't we ever challenge the assumptions underlying the curriculum?

While I realize you have a limited ability to replace or abandon the curriculum, it is equally true that doing the same thing louder will not achieve a different result.
But both of your responses dodge the question. From the perspective of someone opposed to the accountability measures of NCLB and skeptical of standardized tests, what would you have me do with the knowledge that (e.g.) four out of ten students I taught last year couldn’t find the volume of a unique swimming pool?

Why should students be able to find the volume of a swimming pool? How often do you have to do that? I never calculate unique swimming pool volume.

How many of your students have access to a swimming pool or even swim? (Oh, I know. Tests are supposed to be culturally neutral.)

It's worth asking yourself the question Seymour Papert used to challenge my own teaching and curriculum planning. "What can they DO with that?"

Such a question goes well beyond matters of relevance. Knowledge is constructed as a consequence of experience. What sorts of experiences do your students have?

I'm not a Utopian. I know that you have to "teach" the kids "math." However, you may need to ensure understanding before covering the curriculum. Perhaps you can change the order of the curriculum. Perhaps you can supplement the curriculum with more imaginative texts (including trade books written by experts). Perhaps you can use Logo with kids - still for my money the richest environment for developing geometric reasoning. Perhaps you can find a way for students to be less hostile to the curriculum being shoveled in their direction. In any event, you need to take the kids from where they are and help them move forward.

You may need to change everything, just to "catch-up!"

The research of Constance Kamii and others, plus your own common sense indicates that "practicing" more pool volume problems is unlikely to help students improve their scores, or more importantly understand volume. Check out Kamii's books here. Her videos are available from Teachers College Press.

In that spirit, here are some resources and practical ideas you might consider:
As Papert and Harel teach us, "It's OK to worry about what to teach Monday, as long as what you do points to what you want to do someday." Don't get distracted by the immediacy of the curriculum or tests. I hope this helps.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

It's 3 AM and the White House Wants to Change Your Math Curriculum!

President Bush's National Math Advisory Panel has released its final report and several Pulse Contributing Editors discuss the merits of the effort while none if surprised by the panel's focus on "core math skills."

• Roger Schank, Ph.D. challenges many of the assumptions underlying the report.

• David Thornburg, Ph.D. takes issue with the panel chair's comments about constructivism.

• Marvin Minsky, Ph.D. (via an external blog) explores why math is hard to learn.

• Gary Stager, Ph.D. discusses the likely harm caused by the report's inauthentic recommendations.

• Math teacher, Michael Paul Goldenberg, wonders if anything is new.

Please share these articles with your friends and colleagues!

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