kitchen table math, the sequel

Friday, October 24, 2014

Famous last words

Mayor Bill DiBlasio in this morning's Times:

"Ebola is an extremely difficult disease to get."*

Ed read that out loud to me and said, "That's why medical personnel are wearing hazmat suits."

Interestingly, the Times seems to have cut the line. At least, I don't find it on the site now. Found it in the Daily Mail.

I take his point .... which is, I assume, that Ebola is hard to get from a subway seat. (Let's hope so, seeing as how practically everyone I know has been on the subway this week.)

But still.

If you're the mayor, try to get it right.

And stop telling me to remain calm.

I hate people telling me to remain calm.

*'There is no reason for New Yorkers to be alarmed': De Blasio in desperate appeal for calm over Ebola case... despite news that patient spent a week roaming New York
PUBLISHED: 22:25 EST, 23 October 2014 | UPDATED: 04:19 EST, 24 October 2014

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Rote understanding

Late to the party ---- I've just read Barry's "Undoing the ‘Rote Understanding’ Approach to Common Core Math Standards"!

I love that phrase: rote understanding.


I was interested to see that Barry was taught "making ten" when he was in grade school:
The “making ten” method is included in the math program used in Singapore—a nation whose fourth and eighth graders have consistently obtained the highest scores in international math tests. Specifically, in Singapore’s Primary Math textbook for first grade, the procedure for adding by “making tens” is explained. Of particular importance, however, is that the procedure is not the only one used, nor are first graders forced to use it. This may be because many first graders likely come to learn that 8 + 6 equals 14 through memorization, without having to repeatedly compose and decompose numbers in order to achieve the “deep understanding” of addition and subtraction that standards-writers—and the interpreters of same—feel is necessary for six-year-olds.

“Making tens” is not limited to Singapore’s math textbooks, nor is it by any means a new strategy. It has been used for years, as it was in my third-grade arithmetic textbook, written in 1955...
I have a question about the teacher's explanation of the number 6:
“So if we can partner 9 to a number and anchor 10, we can help our students see what 9 plus 6 is. So we’re going to decompose our 6, and we know 6 is made up of parts. One of its parts is a 1 and the other part is a 5. 
How do mathematicians think about whole numbers?

Do they see them as "made up of parts"?

Or as decomposable into parts?

(Or both --- ?)

To me, "made up of" and "decomposable into" seem like two different things.

Another question: if 6 is "made up of parts," is 6 one of the parts?

Is 0?

I bet right this minute there are kids all over America who are royally confused by the ramifications of making ten.

Monday, October 20, 2014


We've been to Ireland!

First time ever.

Five days in Dublin --- incredible.

On the way back to the airport, our taxi driver explained the euro, the Germans, and the Irish people's bailout of the banks: "The German banks were in here handing out loans to people they knew couldn't pay them back. It was like going to the races and betting a thousand dollars, and if you won you got $1,040, if you lost you got $1,000."

Neuromyths I have known and loved

In one study Dr. Howard-Jones cites, 48 percent of British teachers agreed with the statement “We mostly only use 10 percent of our brain.” Ninety-three percent believed that “individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, visual, auditory or kinaesthetic)” (research actually doesn’t support this), and 29 percent believed “drinking less than 6 to 8 glasses of water a day can cause the brain to shrink” (it can’t). Sixteen percent thought that “learning problems associated with developmental differences in brain function cannot be remediated by education.”

How Brain Myths Could Hurt Kids
I was able to pull the paper, and the data on teacher belief in learning styles is hilarious.

Percentage of teachers who believe individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style:

93% of teachers in the UK
96% of teachers in the Netherlands
97% of teachers in Turkey
96% of teachers in Greece
97% of teachers in China

Pretty much the entire planetary teaching force.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Arithmetic for the ages (Ebola v. influenza edition)

Ed and I were chatting about op-eds urging people to forget about Ebola & go get their flu shots, when it occurred to me to wonder how many people actually die of the flu. (Ed had just read an article estimating that with early diagnosis & full supportive care in a Western hospital, the fatality rate for Ebola would be somewhere in the vicinity of 10%.)

Turns out practically nobody dies from the flu:
"Over a period of 30 years, between 1976 and 2006, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people."

Key Facts about Influenza (Flu) & Flu Vaccine
Somebody should check my calculator skills, but using 250,000,000 as the figure for U.S. population I get:

Estimated number of flu fatalities per year: 100 to 1,633
Estimated percent flu fatalities per year: 0.00004% to 0.0007%

I don't know whether the CDC publishes an estimate for how much these numbers were affected by flu vaccine. I'm guessing: not much, seeing as how flu shots aren't particularly effective.

Does anyone know the history of flu shots & the flu shot campaign?

Is there a good reason the entire population is urged to get a flu shot every year?

What am I missing?

For the record, I stopped getting flu shots a few years ago. It's not at all convenient for me to get a flu shot (I used to have to persuade the kids' pediatrician to give me a flu shot, too); the shots hurt; and I always get slightly sick from the shot.

Plus I usually ended up with a wicked case of the flu anyway.

I haven't had the flu since I stopped getting the shot.

Either I'm free-riding on other people's flu shots, or I'm just not getting the flu.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Success desk in a library without books

I'm looking through my queue, trying to remember my favorites of the many things I've wanted to post over the past month .... pretty sure this is one of them.
Without stacks to organize, librarians staffing the main reference desk, which is called a success desk, will steer students to tutoring resources and train them in managing digital materials.

While the library is not paperless, students are discouraged from using its printers too much, Miller said. They can buy traditional textbooks in the bookstore, or digital texts when available.

Old-fashioned books can be requested on loan from libraries at Florida's 11 other public universities.
Only in a library with no books will you see a reference desk called a Success Desk.

Turf, again! and how my District chooses a math curriculum

We're voting on turf.



Related: how my town picks math curriculum.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Still swimming upstream, back as soon as humanly possible - I miss you!

I really want to get back to ktm -- right this minute.

The big news, now somewhat old big news, is that we've sold our book!*

The book about the basal ganglia.

Which I have been working on for --- is it 5 years?

(My 5-year quest to write a book about the basal ganglia is proof positive that just-in-time learning is poppycock, but that's a story for another day.)

Hudson Press is the publisher.

*The lead author is Eric Hollander.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Catching up - off-topic

Number one: Surfer.

For passers-by, a year and a half ago one of our dogs, Surfer, was diagnosed with stage 3 mast cell cancer.

For a dog, Stage 3 mast cell cancer is the Big One. The statistics I found had 80% of dogs diagnosed with Stage 3 mast cell cancer dying within eight months, and the younger of the two vets in the office we take our dogs to told me Surfer's diagnosis was the "pancreatic cancer of dogs."


As it happened, there was, at that very moment, a new miracle drug on the market that looked to be pretty effective, but Surfer nearly keeled over dead after just 2 weeks on Kinavet, which would have had to be taken for the rest of his days to work.

So I forgot about chemotherapy & just took palisadesk's dietary advice.

And it worked.

Surfer is completely fine. Beyond fine, he's fabulous. He's thin, energetic, tuned-in, and .... not sick. At least not as far as anyone can tell. The young vet, who likes to argue & pooh-pooh, actually said to me, a few weeks ago: "Whatever you did, it worked."

I did whatever palisadesk told me to do, so there you go.

Meanwhile Abby's the one I'm worried about; she's suddenly old, losing control of her back legs, deaf, and not looking good.

Here's hoping Palisadesk has more tricks up her sleeve.

Surfer is 13 years old. We got him 2 months after 9/11. Pit bull/Rottweiler/hound mix.

Abby is 12. Yellow Lab.


I've been Swallowed Up by Events (a story for another day) ---- and now, I aim to be back.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Congratulations, Karen H!

I think we've have our first kitchen table math wedding!

Karen H's daughter.

I'm pretty sure Karen was reading ktm from the very beginning....

I feel I've watched her children grow up from afar.


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Trick sentence

Still on the clock, so I've only time to admire some sentences in the morning paper before I go write some of my own. Here's today's:

"With an insinuating pose and a seductive, throaty voice — her simplest remark sounded like a jungle mating call, one critic said — Ms. Bacall shot to fame in 1944 with her first movie, Howard Hawks’s adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel “To Have and Have Not,” playing opposite Humphrey Bogart, who became her lover on the set and later her husband."

That sentence is a little essay unto itself: a sentence-combining tour de force!

The September before last, I gave a department talk on precision teaching, and when I distributed a handout showing the number of subject-verb-[object] propositions a Times reporter had stuffed into just one fully readable sentence (17, as I recall), a couple of people were appalled. 

One said the Times has....hmmm. I'm forgetting the story now. 

Something like: the Times has some kind of widely circulating internal memo that lists the day's bad sentences so as to subject them to public shaming.

He said my 17-proposition pick should have made the list.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Off-topic ---

I'm sitting here at the breakfast table reading the paper, and I've come across this fabulous sentence in an op-ed by Daniel Levitin:

"Every day we're assaulted with facts, pseudofacts, news feeds and jibber-jabber, coming from all directions."


I must say, that pretty much describes a normal day for me, inveterate information-consumer that I am. 

Of course, I like jibber-jabber.

Speaking of which, I have a guillotine deadline on Thursday -- so back with more education jibber-jabber after that.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

1st major study of reform math: epic fail

In the August 2014 issue of Economics of Education Review:

We investigate the impact of an ambitious provincial school reform in Canada on students’ mathematical achievements. It is the first paper to exploit a universal school reform of this magnitude to identify the causal effect of a widely supported teaching approach on students’ math scores. Our data set allows us to differentiate impacts according to the number of years of treatment and the timing of treatment. Using the changes-in-changes model, we find that the reform had negative effects on students’ scores at all points on the skills distribution and that the effects were larger the longer the exposure to the reform. [emphasis added]


In this paper, we estimate the impact of Quebec’s (the second most populated province in Canada) ambitious and universal school reform implemented in the early 2000’s on children’s mathematical ability throughout primary and secondary school. At the time of the reform, the performance of students in the province of Quebec was comparable to that of students from the top performing countries in international assessments. Nonetheless, the educational system in Quebec was still subject to severe criticism at home due to its alarmingly large high school dropout rate, especially among male students.6 To ensure the success of all students, the province decided to implement an ambitious reform introducing a new program in each and every school across the province which drastically changed the way teaching was delivered to all children in primary and secondary schools. The Quebec education program (MELS, 2001, 2003, 2007) relied on a socio-constructivist teaching approach focused on problem-based and self-directed learning. [emphasis added] This approach mainly moved teaching away from the traditional/academic approaches of memorization, repetitions and activity books, to a much more comprehensive approach focused on learning in a contextual setting in which children are expected to find answers for themselves. [emphasis added]

. . . . More specifically, the teaching approach promoted by the Quebec reform is comparable to the reform-oriented teaching approach in the United States. As of 2006, this approach was widely spread across the United States (although more traditional approaches remained dominant) and it was supported by leading organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Research Council, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Yet few studies in economics have addressed the impact of various teaching approaches, let alone the approach promoted by the Quebec reform.


[The] approach was designed to enable students to ‘‘find answers to questions arising out of everyday experience, to develop a personal and social value system, and to adopt responsible and increasingly autonomous behaviors’’ (MELS, 2005).

In the classroom, students were expected to be more actively involved in their own learning and take responsibility for it. Critical to this aspect was the need to relate their learning activities to their prior knowledge and transfer their newly acquired knowledge to new situations in their daily lives. ‘‘Instead of passively listening to teachers, students will take in active, hands-on learning. They will spend more time working on projects, doing research and solving problems based on their areas of interest and their concerns. They will more often take part in workshops or team learning to develop a broad range of competencies.’’ (MELS, 1999). This centralized approach in providing the program and training with a school-based execution is in many ways comparable to the current approach taken within the comprehensive school reform (CSR) models at the national level in the United States (Borman et al., 2003). The main differences are that in Quebec, implementation was mandatory in each and every school, funding was not tied to the implementation, and training packages and support are centralized in many ways. These differences are critical: they imply that the reform had to be implemented in all schools, and that the resources and training was not tied to individual school characteristics. Whether private or public, English speaking or French speaking, all schools across the province were mandated to follow the reform according to the implementation schedule. This implies that all children in Quebec were treated according to same timeline, and that parents were not able to self-select their children into or out of the reform, except by moving out of the province which they did not.

The school reform was planned at the highest level by civil servants at the Department of Education (MELS). The MELS imposes the program to be followed in each grade by every school. The 69 School Boards (60 Francophone and 9 Anglophone) responsible for all public schools, their superintendents and the school principals, are the channels and drive belts between the MELS and school teachers and students.



We find strong evidence of negative effects of the reform on the development of students’ mathematical abilities. More specifically, using the changes-in-changes estimator, we show that the impact of the reform increases with exposure, and that it impacts negatively students at all points on the skills distribution. . . . Students from the lower end of the distribution do not seem to be in a better position to successfully complete their schooling. Mathematical abilities are strongly related to school attainment and labor market outcomes, and for lower performing students they are at best equivalent post reform, but most likely lower.

The teaching approach dictated by the reform is based on socio-constructivism. According to Pinker (1997), proponents of this method believe that children must construct mathematical knowledge for themselves with the teacher only guiding the discussion on the topics and that repetitions and practice are seen as detrimental to learning. He argues that constructivism is not appropriate for mathematics. For him, ‘‘. . . without the practice that compiles a halting sequence of steps into a mental reflex, a learner will always be building mathematical structures out of the tiniest nuts and bolts’’. Certain skills for mathematics may be very difficult to ‘‘construct’’ at a young age and can possibly be better attained by old-fashioned practice and a more mechanical approach. Pinker suggests that the poor performance of the United States in mathematics could be linked to the teaching approach, which is mainly contextual with no teaching of mathematical concepts. The evidence presented in this paper supports this argument.

The distributional impacts of a universal school reform on mathematical achievements: A natural experiment from Canada by Catherine Haeck, Pierre Lefebvre *, Philip Merrigan
Well, well, well.

Contra Elizabeth Green (again), history does not fold itself meekly into a Bill Gates-approved narrative in which "the traditional approach we take to teaching math — the one that can be mind-numbing, but also comfortingly familiardoes not work."

Using the traditional approach, Quebec schools produced students whose achievement "was comparable to that of students from the top performing countries in international assessments."

Using constructivism, they produced students whose achievement suffered at every grade level, and at every skill level to boot. Good students did worse, bad students did worse, in-between students did worse. Everyone did worse in constructivist math.

Because constructivism doesn't work. 

As to the teachers, whom Green cites as the source of Reform Math failure, the article notes that "Extensive training was provided to support the new program."

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Does anyone remember the math wars?

The New York Times is out with yet another entry on the failure of traditional teachers to teach math to Americans:
My hunch is that how we learn math in America has very little to do with best practices and a lot to do with how teachers remember learning math when they were children.
Can you spell Weltanschauung?

Free advice: Never trust a "hunch" when your hunch is identical in every respect with the worldview of a Most Emailed story in the New York Times.

If your hunch is identical in every respect with the worldview of a Most Emailed story in the New York Times, it's not a hunch. It's conventional wisdom and nobody needs to hear it again.

Contra Elizabeth Green, we do not have to accept that the traditional approach we take to teaching math — the one that can be mind-numbing, but also comfortingly familiar — does not work. It should be obvious to anyone who actually looked at our history that "the traditional approach to teaching math" worked perfectly well for many American students.

Here's Barry Garelick:
From the 1940′s to the mid 1960′s, at a time when math and other subjects were taught in the traditional manner, scores in all subjects on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills increased steadily. From 1965 to the mid-70′s there was a dramatic decline, and then scores increased again until 1990 when they reached an all-time high. Scores stayed relatively stable in the 90′s.

The decline in SAT scores doesn't fit the narrative, either.

Do we know when state legislatures passed laws requiring teachers to have degrees in education?

I'm trying to track that down.

Speaking of the math wars, it's been a couple of decades now since the NCTM, an organization whose membership consists almost entirely of public school math teachers, accepted that the traditional approach we take to teaching math does not work.

Chris is turning 20. Neither he nor any of his peers learned their math facts at school.

Disclosing relationships at The New Yorker

Since reading Elizabeth Green's endorsement of Common Core in a Times excerpt of her book, I've been trying to remember how other newspapers and magazines handle disclosure.

I'm pretty sure the Wall Street Journal always includes a disclosure about ownership in any stories mentioning Murdoch, but I need to check.

I've just this moment found a good model for disclosure in a blog post at The New Yorker:
An earlier version of this post did not disclose the author’s relationships with some sources whose research he cites. Gabriele Oettingen is a professor at New York University, where the author also teaches. Heather Barry Kappes is a former student of the author’s, with whom he has collaborated. The post has been updated to reflect this.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

"The Flipped Classroom" at CUNY's Idea Lab

I have a piece on flipped classrooms at Idea Lab!

Does it matter if writers are funded by Bill Gates?

Back when I was first writing ktm, and was just discovering constructivism, I watched an Oprah Winfrey special on a Bill Gates-funded school in San Diego (I think it was). High Tech High.

The camera followed Oprah around the school for what seemed like a very long tour. The rooms were strikingly different from standard academic classrooms. For one thing, there were no books. No desks, really, either. Just groups (teams!) of kids building stuff. Every class looked like shop class, only with plastic and metal instead of wood.

Finally Oprah said, "I don't see any books. Don't you have books?"

The tour guide, who may have been head of school, said rather proudly that, no, they didn't have books.

I expected the guide to add that all their books were on computers because they were high-tech-high (e-books weren't around yet), but she didn't. The answer was just a simple 'no.' The school didn't have books. Because technology, I guess.

The look on Oprah's face was priceless. She more or less wrinkled her nose, then said, "I don't think I'd like this school very much."

A fabulous moment.

Naturally, I was aghast, and I wanted to write a post about the show.

But I didn't.

My co-creator of ktm, Carolyn, had just taken jobs at Microsoft, along with her husband Bernie; they'd pulled up stakes and moved to Seattle.

Given Carolyn's professional situation, I didn't think I should be writing posts sharply criticizing Bill Gates.

I had no idea whether blasting a Bill Gates-funded school on a blog I shared with Carolyn would bother her, and I didn't ask. I didn't want to put her in the position of having to express an opinion one way or the other. Nor did I know whether blasting a Gates-funded school on our blog would bother anyone she worked for. I was pretty sure no one at Microsoft would see anything I wrote, but you never know.

So I said dropped the idea.

I didn't change my views.

I didn't become an advocate for schools without books.

I just let it go.

That's how social influence works.

Bill Gates is funding too many think tanks, schools, unions, interest groups, politicians, journalism projects, politicians, etc. In the world of education, you can't turn around without bumping into the guy.

We need writers to point this out.

Invisible gorillas I have known and loved

Seeing as how there are about 5 other things I'm supposed to be doing right now, I am instead cruising the abstracts for Psychological Science articles.
The Invisible Gorilla Strikes Again
Sustained Inattentional Blindness in Expert Observers
Psychological Science July 17, 2013

Trafton Drew
Melissa L.-H. Võ
Jeremy M. Wolfe

Researchers have shown that people often miss the occurrence of an unexpected yet salient event if they are engaged in a different task, a phenomenon known as inattentional blindness. However, demonstrations of inattentional blindness have typically involved naive observers engaged in an unfamiliar task. What about expert searchers who have spent years honing their ability to detect small abnormalities in specific types of images? We asked 24 radiologists to perform a familiar lung-nodule detection task. A gorilla, 48 times the size of the average nodule, was inserted in the last case that was presented. Eighty-three percent of the radiologists did not see the gorilla. Eye tracking revealed that the majority of those who missed the gorilla looked directly at its location. Thus, even expert searchers, operating in their domain of expertise, are vulnerable to inattentional blindness.
I'm going to have to tell my story about sitting on a subway with a knife pointed almost directly in my face (or my boyfriend's face, at any rate) & not noticing.

I did notice that my boyfriend (I was maybe 20-years old at the time) was looking anxious as all get out.

That, I noticed.

I also noticed the couple standing immediately beside him, arguing over something to do with an apartment they were going to. As I recall, they were ticked off at its resident--they agreed on that--but they seemed to disagree on what to do about it. So they were arguing.

Didn't see the knife one of them was brandishing.

Or the gorilla.