Sunday, May 29, 2011

Another Doomed Effort

In the NYTimes, an article about redesigning the "Food Pyramid", which attempts to instruct Americans about a healthy diet: Goodbye Food Pyramid, Hello Dinner Plate.

My favorite quote:

“It’s going to be hard not to do better than the current pyramid, which basically conveys no useful information,” said Walter C. Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. Willett said he had not seen the new logo.

The government, the media, and everyone else in the world have been telling us for decades that we're too fat. Along the way, we keep getting fatter.

What if we just stop nagging everyone about what they eat? The U.S.D.A could save at least 2 million bucks if they just quit now.

All these diet programs remind me of the equally ineffective reading programs that our kids suffer through at school.

How to Make Kids Hate Reading

From a comment to "24 Book Reports a Year -- isn't this a bit excessive?" at Forum: Learning At School:

NOTE: I have removed this comment from my blog due to objections from the author.

This was my reply (now somewhat out of context):

Actually, I've got some easy answers: why not leave the kids alone? The common thread running through all these strategies is that reading for pleasure has been taken away from the child and is now owned by the teacher. The child has to prove, to the teacher's satisfaction, that he's reading the prescribed amount of prescribed content (and having the prescribed "thoughtful" response!) in what used to be his free time. It's enough to make anyone hate reading.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Math Curricula and Time Management

This is largely a response to Chris' interesting post at A Blog About School about a local private school which is switching over to Singapore Math.

Chris professes to be a non-combatant in the Math Wars, although he's no fan of the Everyday Math his kids use. At the same time, he's concerned that his kids' school schedules an hour for math every day, but the kids barely have enough time to eat lunch, and they have art only once a week.

For me, there are two separate issues here. One is the time management practiced by schools, which is generally terrible. To the extent that schools even care about time management, their philosophy seems to be: "We're stuck with classrooms full of kids for 35 hours a week. We've got to do something with the kids so they won't riot and tear the place down. How can we possibly fill all that time?"

The impulse to fill the time results in dumb makework projects, some of which we parents get to see when they get sent home as homework (oh joy!)

Schools brag that their kids do an hour of math a day, as if that proves the school is serious about teaching math. But what exactly are the kids doing for an hour? If they're doing boring, pointless, time-eating measuring projects, more time ≠ more learning.

The second issue is that of curriculum. Chris is afraid that bringing in a serious academic curriculum like Singapore Math would mean using even more time in the classroom.

I would like to assure Chris that curriculum vs. time wouldn't have to work out the way that he fears. That is, a serious math curriculum like Singapore doesn't need to take more time than the schools are now spending on Everyday Math. If it was done well it would take LESS time. Why? Because it's clear and concise. Its goal is to teach real math skills and concepts in the most effective way possible.

I tutored a 6th-grader, using Singapore Math, for 7 hours before we left for our travels. My student covered about 2 years of math over that time, and she's solid with the basics. Granted, this is a very bright kid, and it was one-on-one tutoring, but it's some indication of how little time real learning requires under good conditions.

As good homeschoolers have proven over and over again, a coherent, serious curriculum can be taught in far less time than schools usually take up today. Then the rest of the day can be devoted to all the things we want our kids to have in their lives: recreation, sports, friends, and following their own interests.

What we usually see in school is the worst possible set of choices; that is, an incoherent, shallow curriculum implemented in the least effective way possible with the goal of using up a maximum of hours in the day.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Minimal Schooling

As an update, I can report that our homeschooling efforts have taken the following form:

Older Daughter has a package of homework that was sent with her by Friends Omphalos. She does the work just as grudgingly and last-minute as she would have done at home.

I have walked Younger Daughter through a few pages of Singapore Math, and all of us have at different times helped her read a few of her leveled readers.

Every day we spend on our travels I find myself becoming more of an unschooler. The most mundane of our activities here -- for instance, biking around the small city where we now live, which we've been doing a lot -- seems so much more valuable than most of what the kids did at school.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Grim Future for Recent College Grads

In today's NYTimes, Outlook is Bleak Even For Recent College Graduates.

I liked this comment:

Education is the next bubble to pop. Anytime you have consumption masquerading as investment (especially when it is socially encouraged as the "smart thing to do"), you have the makings of a bubble.


"Sure, this house is a little more expensive than I can afford, but loans are cheap, and it will pay off in the end.... it's a good investment."


"Sure this degree is a little more expensive than I can afford, but loans are cheap, and it will pay off in the end... it's a good investment."

Except this time, it won't be the nest egg of retirees that gets crushed... it will be the futures of the young.

Monday, May 16, 2011

What is = ?

I still remember the horror I felt at my first exposure to simultaneous linear equations. You know, this sort of thing:

2x + y = 7
3x - y = 8

I couldn't believe my ears when the teacher suggested we should just add the two equations together. How could this be? I thought it would violate the laws of God and man alike. It seemed completely arbitrary and inexcusable. It was a real "turn the giraffe upside down" moment for me.

Over time, I came to realize that it's OK to add the equations together because each equation represents two equal values. If 2x + y = 7, you can add the same value to both sides of the equation and the equals sign will still be true. In this case, the value we will add to both sides of the equation is contained by the second equation, 3x - y = 8. The equals sign means that 3x - y is the same value as 8, so we can 3x - y to one side of the first equation and 8 to the other side of the first equation, and the equals sign will still be true.

The power of the equals sign is a tricky concept. I recently showed my older daughter how to simplify one side of an equation, and she asked, "does this mean I have to do something to the other side?" I said no, because I hadn't changed the value of the expression that I simplified, so the equals sign still held true. I can tell she will need more work on this point.

This is where curricula like Trailblazers make a fundamental mistake. For some obscure reason, they explicitly discourage writing mathematical notation, in favor of either "mental math" or writing paragraphs explaining how you reached the solution. But it is essential that students practice writing the symbolic language of mathematics, which was developed over centuries with the exact purpose of expressing mathematical ideas in the most succinct, clear, and concise way possible.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Jay Mathews Doesn't Get It

From the comments to Who Says I'm an Over-Involved Dad?:

washingtonpostid4comment wrote:

Dear Parent,

SOLs are coming up. If you child is struggling with any subject tested you need to immediately TEACH your child the material they must know. I have limited time but you only have 1 child to teach. If it is a project that I sent home with unrealistic expectations for the age of your child, I urge you DO NOT HELP your child. Otherwise I won't be able to tell your child they didn't put enough effort into the project. I know 4th graders struggle to break down large projects into chunks and are just learning how to summarize information from the 4 sources they are required to gather independently. But I don't have time to teach these skills in my class. Therefore, I am sending this home even though I know they aren't capable of doing this independently. Don't worry about the hours spent in frustration not learning what they should be learning from the project. It is something that I would love to teach in my classroom if I had time. Their work will proudly be displayed in the hall for teacher conferences.

Remember, your time should be devoted to teaching your child to read, write, and do math.

thank you, Teacher

Very nice. A side of this I did not consider.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Who did the project?

(From The Secret Life of  a Slummy Mummy, by Fiona Neill.)

Then I remember what it is I have forgotten.  Sam's "Six Great Artists of the World" project has to be handed in this morning.  Three down, three to go.

... Down in the kitchen I assess the situation while searching for paintbrushes and paint ...

I must be making more noise than I think, because during the course of this flurry of activity, Tom [the husband] wanders into the kitchen.

"I've got to do Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock and Matisse," I say, waving tissue paper in his face, "all by eight o'clock."

"What are you doing, Lucy? Go back to bed ... You're having some kind of nightmare about abstract painting," he says.

... "Sam has an art project.  He's done half of it, but luckily I remembered that the rest has to be handed in today.  And if Sam doesn't finish this, then it is me who will be held responsible."

"But Sam isn't finishing it, you are doing it for him."

"It's quicker and less messy this way.  If he were involved it would never get done.  Most importantly, if he doesn't hand it in, that means I have failed as a mother."

"Lucy, that is ridiculous, nobody judges you for something like this."

I put down the paints and take a deep breath.

"That is where you are wrong.  If Sam fails, it is a reflection on me.  It's just the nature of mothering in the new millenium," I say, jabbing a paintbrush in the air to illustrate my point.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

Whole Brain Parents

From the Whole Brain Teaching Forum:

This comment was written by a kindergarten teacher:

My parents love the notes sent home letting them know exactly what rule their child broke! I actually haven't had too much trouble having them returned and most of my parents, although I explained that the home practice should be 2-5 minutes, have signed the paper returning it saying their child practiced for 30 or so minutes. My parents are pretty creative for example:

Kid gets a practice card for Rule #2. Parent will have their child spend the evening having to raise their hand and be called on for ANYTHING they want to say or ask for the entire night! LOL! My parents have really bought into the WBT and love that their child isn't SCOLDED for misbehavior but are given the opportunity to practice the correct behavior! We have had great success!

Those poor kids. Not only has school been turned into a compliance factory, but now home is just an annex.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Richard Elmore re: Beliefs vs. Practices

(From I Used to Think ... And Now I Think, by Richard Elmore.)

I used to think that people’s beliefs determined their practices. And now I think that people’s practices determine their beliefs. As a child of the 1960s, I believed in the power of ideas to shape people’s behavior. I believed, for example, as many in my generation did, that the problems of failing schools originated in the failure of educators to “believe” that all children were capable of learning or — to choose a more contemporary framing of the issue — that changing teachers’ attitudes about what children can learn would result in changing their practices in ways that would increase student learning.

The accumulated evidence, I regret to say, does not support this view. People’s espoused beliefs—about race, and about how children learn, for example—are not very influential in determining how most people actually behave. The largest determinant of how people practice is how they have practiced in the past, and people demonstrate an amazingly resilient capacity to relabel their existing practices with whatever ideas are currently in vogue.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Horrible Histories: Restoration of the Monarchy

First up, Charles II, the "King of Bling".

 Next, a wife swap between a Puritan family and a Restoration family.

Erasing a Line in the Sand

Over at kitchen table math, the Race to Nowhere has been labeled "the opposition".

Well, the Race to Nowhere doesn't look like the opposition to me. I agree with the main point it makes: kids in affluent school districts are under way too much pressure.

I also agree with the main point made by kitchen table math: constructivist math curricula are a disaster, and have failed utterly to teach our kids math.

For me, a dream education would contain real intellectual content without destroying our kids' childhoods. I would like to see an end to homework in the early grades, with minimal homework in later grades. If we make a child do something, we must be sure that the thing is worth doing for itself (and no, I won't accept excuses like "it teaches good study habits.")

The affluent district where I live shows the truth of Parkinson's Law. Work expands to fill the time allotted to it. Schools have come to believe that all of a child's waking time is allotted to schoolwork, so they multiply work to fill the hours.

If schools were careful to teach real content in the most enjoyable, effective, and concise way possible, and to respect the time of their students and families, it would be a whole new world.