kitchen table math, the sequel

Monday, November 24, 2014

A historian reads NY's Common Core Social Studies "Framework"

Peter Meyer just sent New York's Common Core Social Studies Framework. Ed (who is an actual historian) is reading, and I am typing:


"trying to do everything in two years with relatively young students"

"Paleolithic to modern day in 2 years"

"breathtakingly superficial"

"trying to teach the analytical abilities--compare & contrast, critical thinking, making arguments--and also covering a massive insane amount of information"

"it's got knowledge, but way too much of it and way too superficial" -- but also it has these "very advanced analytical skills"

"a whole grid of [analytical] things you're supposed to do"

"then there are themes"

"social studies practices"

"gathering, interpreting, and using evidence"

"under that there are 7 things"

"deconstruct and construct plausible and persuasive arguments using evidence"

"create meaningful and persuasive understandings of the past by fusing disparate and relevant evidence from primary and secondary sources and drawing connections to the present" - "that's one thing and that's just one of 7 things - practices! - under the first category of practices"

"categories of practices -- there are six different categories, each of which has between 6 and 8 subcategories, so we've got about 50 categories altogether"

"then we have reading standards for literacy in history/social studies"

"4 different categories under that"

"then there are text types and purposes"

"4 categories under that"

"range of writing, whatever that is"

"then there's speaking and listening standards, a zillion of those"

"only after those things are mentioned do we get to global history and geography"

"I love this"

"we've already gone through 10 pages of practices, reading standards, writing standards, speaking and presentation standards, then we get to a subheading called Global history and geography"

"this two-year sequence is arranged chronologically, beginning with the Paleolithic and continuing to the present"

"and then, the first thing we have after that, is 10 themes"

"Individual Development and Cultural Identity"

"Development, Movement, and Interaction of Cultures"

"the next one I love a lot: Time, Continuity, and Change --- how about that for a small one?"

"Oh my God, this is just .... "

"and so the first unit is called The First Civilizations, it goes from around 10,000 BCE to 630 CE, so that's 11 centuries in the first unit"

"and then of course there's a zillion subthemes under that"

"then the next one is just 1300 years"

"and it's not just Europe, it's the world, it's China, it's Africa..."

"I love the next one, it's called 'An Age of Expanding Connections' and that's also a thousand years"

"we're talking 9th graders, this is still 9th grade"

"so we're now on page 19 and we've gotten to the end of 9th grade"

"teachers should note that some KEY IDEAS -- that's in caps -- may require extra time and attention. For example, 10.1 The World in 750 is a brief introduction and will not require as much time as other key ideas. So it gives the exception rather than the example of a key idea that will require extra time."

"While the course emphasizes the importance of historical and spatial thinking, all of the social studies practices and standards are included in the study of global history and geography -- This is the kitchen sink. They're trying to do all of the politically correct stuff, which is thinking, and then they have knowledge."

"and so the 10th grade course is plausible - it's 1750 to the present - that's completely plausible"

"in 9th grade you're going from 10,000 BC to 1750 AD"

"students will examine efforts to unify, stabilize, and centralize Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate!"

"oh, and then students will compare and contrast the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan with France under the rule of the Bourbon Dynasty, looking at the rule of Edo and Paris/Versailles"

"then you're looking at attempts to control the daimyo and nobles ------- and the development of bureaucracies!"

"this is just one of three things you're doing under Theme 10.1, which is the theme you're not supposed to spend very much time of because it's just a snapshot of the world in 1750"

"and then the next unit goes from 1750 to 1914"

"that is a long mother of a unit"

"under that you do Enlightenment, Revolution, Nationalism"

"then the causes and effects of the Industrial Revolution"

"then Imperialism"

"basically they're trying to satisfy all these different constituencies, you've got the Hirsch knowledge constituency, you've got the critical thinking constituency, you've got the historical practices constituency ... they've just thrown it all in... plus you've got all the literacy stuff, too"

"they cover the entire Enlightenment by comparing one text by Hobbes to one text by Locke"

"nothing about the Scottish Enlightenment"

"nothing about the German Englightenment"

"nothing about the French Enlightenment"

"just these two British guys"

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

David Coleman hearts China

I just looked this up for a post on the Parents Forum re: Chinese versus French, and now see that I apparently never posted it here:
The College Board has earned headlines recently for revising the SAT exam and supporting Common Core state education standards. But that's not all the organization does with its outsize influence on American education. This month it announced plans to teach Chinese language and culture in 20 school districts across the U.S.—in partnership with China's state-run Confucius Institutes, which are known to mix cultural exchange with Communist Party propaganda.

The College Board website doesn't mention that Confucius Institutes are Chinese government programs. Nor does it admit to any concerns that Hanban—the Chinese state agency that supervises, funds and provides staff to Confucius Institutes—may bully teachers or censor lessons within American classrooms.

Instead, College Board President David Coleman waxes poetic about the venture: "Hanban is just like the sun. It lights the path to develop Chinese teaching in the U.S.," he said at a conference in Los Angeles on May 8. "The College Board is the moon. I am so honored to reflect the light that we've gotten from Hanban." These remarks, so far reported only by Chinese state media, were confirmed by the College Board.

China's Beachhead in American Schools
by David Feith
May 26, 2014 1:23 p.m. ET
David Coleman is not The One.

Froggiemama on gatekeeping, part 2 (and against zero)

To follow up on the story - we did go the special needs route after my extremely bright kid was gatekeepered out of every honors course for the 9th grade. Our district has cutoffs that range from 90 to 95, which you have to maintain for 3 quarters the year before. The problem is, the 8th grade teachers grade largely on vast reams of homework, which all must be submitted in the exact format mandated. It is all on paper, so everyday is a massive paper shuffle. If anything gets lost, it is a 0. The science teacher would take off points if the pen color was blue instead of black, or the margins were wrong, or there were fraggles left on the paper. So my smart but messy and forgetful kid could never get his average up over the cutoffs even though he aced the tests.

So we had a full neuropsych done to the tune of several thousand dollars, targeted at the school district. We learned, surprise, surprise, that my son scores in one of the higher reaches of the gifted realm (forget the term now for his level), and is also "inattentive ADHD". We did a 504 plan, during which I promised he would see a weekly therapist/coach (to the tune of $195 per week) and would take meds. Those promises finally got him a waiver to get into the honors courses. The last one to capitulate was science (his 8th grade science teacher hated him and refused to help out). And now, guess what? He has the highest average in the class in science, with several 100's on tests that the teacher says "no one gets a 100 on." Bleh to the gatekeepers.
As Susan S used to say, I don't even know where to begin.

Since I don't, and since I don't remember discussing this before, here is Douglas Reeves on "The Case Against Zero."
[T]he common use of the zero today is based not on a four-point scale but on a 100-point scale. This defies logic and mathematical accuracy. On a 100-point scale, the interval between numerical and letter grades is typically 10 points, with the break points at 90, 80, 70, and so on. But when the grade of zero is applied to a 100-point scale, the interval between the D and F is not 10 points but 60 points. Most state standards in mathematics require that fifth-grade students understand the principles of ratios -- for example, A is to B as 4 is to 3; D is to F as 1 is to zero. Yet the persistence of the zero on a 100-point scale indicates that many people with advanced degrees, including those with more background in mathematics than the typical teacher, have not applied the ratio standard to their own professional practices. To insist on the use of a zero on a 100-point scale is to assert that work that is not turned in deserves a penalty that is many times more severe than that assessed for work that is done wretchedly and is worth a D. Readers were asked earlier how many points would be awarded to a student who failed to turn in work on a grading scale of 4, 3, 2, 1, 0, but I'll bet not a single person arrived at the answer "minus 6." Yet that is precisely the logic that is employed when the zero is awarded on a 100- point scale.

There are two issues at hand. The first, and most important, is to determine the appropriate consequence for students who fail to complete an assignment. The most common answer is to punish these students. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, there is an almost fanatical belief that punishment through grades will motivate students. In contrast, there are at least a few educators experimenting with the notion that the appropriate consequence for failing to complete an assignment is to require the student to complete the assignment. That is, students lose privileges -- free time and unstructured class or study-hall time -- and are required to complete the assignment. The price of freedom is proficiency, and students are motivated not by threats of failure but by the opportunity to earn greater freedom and discretion by completing work accurately and on time. I know my colleagues well enough to understand that this argument will not persuade many of them. Rewards and punishments are part of the psyche of schools, particularly at the secondary level.
Froggiemama on gatekeeping, part 1

Monday, November 17, 2014

Off-topic, Ebola edition

$20 million to treat one patient with Ebola
Around 100 healthcare workers were involved in treating Spencer while he was isolated at Bellevue, Schumer said.

In addition, a 24-hour-a-day operation which employed approximately 500 staffers was established by the city’s Health Department to keep track of the estimated 300 people who arrive each day from Ebola hotspots in West Africa.

Meryl Nass, who writes the fabulous Anthrax Vaccine, on what scientists don't know about Ebola, according the Institute of Medicine:
  • how long the incubation period may last is unknown
  • how long Ebola virus stays viable on surfaces is unknown
  • how to effectively kill it is unclear
  • the best PPE has not been established
  • whether Ebola can be transmitted before symptoms start is unknown (several cites suggest it can)
  • its potential to be aerosolized is uncertain
  • whether livestock or pets can be intermediate hosts is unknown
IOM workshop admits they don't know what we said they don't know
I have zero patience for public officials telling me they know things they don't.

Apparently there's an entire literature on communication with the public that shows everyone else feels the same way.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Terrific discussion of "critical thinking" at Cost of College

Trying to teach the enigmatic and increasingly popular skill of critical thinking 

(I'm posting from my iPad -- will clean this up later.)

Hopscotching through the comments, I was struck by two things:

1. "Critical thinking" probably means different things in different disciplines.

2. Writers are always specialists. I can write about education and the brain; I can't write about sports. 

The reason I can write about education and the brain is that I know a good deal about both. 

As a corollary to that statement, I'm only now beginning to be able to write about Common Core because until now I haven't known enough about it to have any thoughts worth writing down. I've wanted for the obsessive, driven focus it would take to actually read CC documents & follow CC developments -- read CC documents and remember what I've read. (My allotment of obsessive, driven reading focus has been directed to macro and grammar/linguistics/writing instruction.)

When I do write about CC, I write about aspects of CC I know: mostly its implementation in my district, but also the top-down & undemocratic nature of its creation and "roll out." 

Or I post snippets from the work of writers who **are** knowledgeable about it.

Nonfiction writers are the ultimate exemplars of the fact that knowledge comes first.

Critical thinking and writing come second.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Froggiemama on gatekeeping

I can remember being gatekeepered out of 8th grade algebra back in the 70's, and the memory still makes me boil. In my case, I was a year younger than the other kids, so the teachers said I wasn't "developmentally ready" for abstract mathematics. So I wasted a year in consumer math.

Fast forward to today - I was utterly shocked to find out that my kids school gatekeepers 8th grade algebra (as well as a whole slew of other "advanced" courses). I had thought gatekeepering at such a young age had been discredited in the 80's. Why are they still doing it? We end up with a school system that is as tracked as the German system. And worse yet, in my district, the tracking criteria has nothing to do with whether a kid is good at math or not. It is all based on whether they are diligent at submitting homework that is neat and organized according to teacher standards.

However, this has nothing to do with Common Core in our district. They have been doing this for eons. At parents night at our high school last spring, the principal was complaining that we don't send enough students to schools like MIT and CMU. Well, you know, if you gatekeeper out all your most talented students in 8th grade, the messy, creative, smart ones, you won't have much talent left in the 12th grade.

Froggiemama on gatekeeping, part 2
At our middle school, when Chris was there, 7th-grade kids were gatekeepered in and out of Earth Science on the basis of "maturity."

"Maturity" meant, among other things, that the student was proactive (I think that was the actual term, proactive) in "seeking extra help."

(Code for: hire a tutor.)

One of the most talented students in the school was gatekeepered out of Earth Science on grounds that she was "anxious."


As I recall, this student had one of the highest scores on the enrollment test. But she was anxious, so no.

Ed and I got involved in that case because we happened to know the parents, who told us what was going on. (Involved in the sense that we could figure out the relevant statutes and knew people to consult.)

What it boiled down to:

Number one, if a high-achieving student has an emotional issue so disabling that she can't take Earth Science, the school is legally obligated to "identify" her as having special needs, which the school had not done (and was not proposing to do).

Number two, if the school had identified this student as having special needs, it could not keep her out of Earth Science on grounds that she had special needs.

Basically, the building principal was wrong on every conceivable ground.

The assistant superintendent intervened and the girl was enrolled.

Unfortunately, the assistant superintendent didn't last long in our district.

The College Board is betraying our trust

From a teacher at a high-performing high school:
To teach a class called AP anything, you have to have your syllabus approved by the College Board. They want to ensure that you are covering the content that they require. This already annoys me: let my students take the test and see how they do. Their results will indicate whether I am covering the material or not.

But it's their name so it's their rules. I submit my curriculum. First try, it comes back rejected: I have not provided evidence that my course is "student centered" and that I use "guided inquiry" to develop "critical thinking skills."

So to use the AP label, you give the College Board authority to define what you teach and how you teach it.

 Fortunately (as I ranted to my students), educationists use undefined buzzwords that can mean anything we want them to. So I announced that from this day forward, my class is now 100% student-centered. Can you smell the fresh clean scent? We then continued with the lesson as planned...

We can not make "critical thinking" the goal. Whatever critical thinking may mean (and I don't really know), we better hope that it emerges as a result of the careful work that we do teaching our specific subjects. But the goal should always be to teach the subjects!

When you make "critical thinking" the goal, then someone is going to say: so math/history/French/science is not that important -- let's just teach them how to think critically. What follows from that is nearly always some inane, time-wasting idea for an "activity" that is disconnected from reality and certainly disconnected from the subject I thought we were trying to teach.
If the College Board is now simply an outpost of Teachers College, it should say so, out loud.

Is this the work of David Coleman?

And is the ACT the last man standing?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog

I'd forgotten that!

Maria Konnikova mentions the cartoon in an interesting piece about online comments.

I've always been amazed by kitchen table math commenters. Smart, funny, and civil for years on end.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Famous last words

Steve Leinwand, principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research’s education program, also argues that America’s math teachers should embrace the shift away from right answers. “Common Core has the audacity to use the word ‘understand’ 218 times,” said Leinwand.

Why so many parents are freaking out about Common Core math
Using the word "understand" 218 times while using the words "right answer" 0 times seems a tad out of whack to me.

Speaking of right answers, I was going through a stack of Education Weeks yesterday & found this:
Ask a child to name a favorite class, and odds are you’ll hear two letters: P.E. Ask an adult which subject has been most valuable in life, and the most popular answer turns out to be math.

That’s according to new survey results by the Gallup organization. About one-third of adults (34 percent) picked math. The next in line was English, at 21 percent, followed by science at 12 percent.

"Gallup Poll Social Series: Work and Education" September 18, 2013
Dollars to donuts, every one of those respondents thinks getting the right answer is a major reason why math is valuable.

Constructivists seem to want authentic, "real-world" problems without authentic, real-world right answers.

I will never get that.

Steve Leinwand, btw, has been singing the same song for decades.

Here he is in 1994:
It's time to recognize that, for many students, real mathematical power, on the one hand, and facility with multidigit, pencil-and-paper computational algorithms, on the other, are mutually exclusive. In fact, it's time to acknowledge that continuing to teach these skills to our students is not only unnecessary, but counterproductive and downright dangerous.


Shouldn't we be as eager to end our obsessive love affair with pencil-and-paper computation as we were to move on from outhouses and sundials?

It's Time To Abandon Computational Algorithms By Steven Leinwand | February 9, 1994
Outhouses, sundials, paper and pencil.

Now there's an analogy that hasn't panned out.

As it turns out, it was the analogy between outhouses and paper and pencil that was not only wrong, but counterproductive and downright dangerous.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Debbie Downer, Nervous Nancy, and Unprofessional Sally

From the latest installment of Barry's "Conversations on the Rifle Range":
Like many school districts, mine instituted “late-start Mondays”, in which school started an hour later and periods were shortened from one hour to 47 minutes. We reported at 7:30 (as always) and had to attend a meeting or other activities as announced. On one of my first late-start Mondays, the math teachers were told to meet for a discussion of the upcoming parents’ “math night” scheduled for later that week. The District would present and discuss the various pathways in math under Common Core and answer questions. There was growing concern among parents regarding the increased limit on the number of eighth grade students who can take Algebra 1, and questions about how students could progress to calculus in twelfth grade.

We met in the core area of the module my classroom was in—a hallway/workspace common to all the classrooms in the module. Sally, the District person I had met at the high school earlier, led the meeting. Her talk was similar to what she told us when I last heard her at the high school in the fall: Algebra 1 for eighth graders would be limited to the “truly gifted”.

“I imagine we’ll have the usual Debbie Downers and Nervous Nancies in the audience on ‘math night’. We want to make two things clear: that there’s no shame in taking Grade 8 math; under Common Core it’s equivalent to the traditional Algebra 1. And secondly, placement in eighth grade Algebra 1 will be more difficult. Fewer students will qualify—Common Core is very challenging.” Which all sounds plausible but leaves open the question of why an elite corps of students is then allowed to take the traditional Algebra 1 course in eighth grade.

Conversations on the Rifle Range 14: Late Start Mondays, Debby Downers, Nervous Nancies and a Tiger Mom
Time for a parent uprising.

Speaking of agency

Speaking of agency .....
Giving a student control over their learning has theoretical and intuitive appeal, but its effects are neither powerful nor consistent in the empirical literature base. This meta-analysis updated previous meta-analytic research by Niemiec, Sikorski, and Walberg by studying the overall effectiveness of providing learner control within educational technology, the characteristics of instruction along the continuum of learner control, and elements of the instructional environments that may play a role in the effectiveness of educational technology. The search terms identified 85 distinct articles, 18 of which met the inclusion criteria (29 effects were computed). The overall effect of including learner control within educational technology was almost zero (g = 0.05), and were also near zero when examining most characteristics of control and classroom contextual factors. Moderate effects were reported for providing learner control within social studies/history courses and for comprehensive technology instructional programs. The effects were larger for behavioral outcomes than academic outcomes, but both were small.

Updated Meta-Analysis of Learner Control Within Educational Technology
Abbey C. Karich, Matthew K. Burns, and Kathrin E. Maki
Review of Educational Research
September 2014, Vol. 84, No. 3, pp. 392–410
Yet another fruitless attempt to transfer adult authority to children.

Meme alert

Agency is the new thing.

The Windward School on "self-determination" and direct instruction

My copy of The Beacon, The Windward School's newsletter, arrived today. Here's what the heads of school have to say on the subject of grit, resilience, self-determination theory, and the like:
Autonomy in the classroom does not necessarily mean students roaming at will between workstations, working in groups, and self-directing their own learning. Autonomy, more essentially, is seen in the student who attends to her work with a personally chosen sense of purpose and self-agency. (In this context, we refer to agency as the power taken by an individual to make "decisions regarding their preferences and actions.") Although not obvious, the direct instruction methodology that guides the Windward classroom is fundamental to the development of autonomous learners.

Every direct instruction lesson begins with three elements:

  • the presentation of an aim for the lesson;
  • the review of prior lessons, clarifying how the current instruction connects to knowledge and skills already learned; and
  • a motivation that gives students an anticipation and incentive for the day's lesson.

By ensuring that every lesson has a purpose, builds upon prior knowledge, and engages the motivation of the students, teachers invoke a volitional engagement of students with the curriculum. Students attend to their work and stick to their work with grit, not as a result of fear or dread or the promise of extrinsic rewards, but because they discern and embrace the purpose of their learning.
The Windward School costs ... at least $40K/year, I think. Somewhere in there.

It's incredible, when you think about it.

The only children in Westchester County who can count on receiving direct instruction every day at school are kids who a) have a learning disability and b) have $40K to spend on tuition at The Windward School.

What happened to Khan Academy?

I wasn't a delighted fan of Khan Academy. Every time I wanted to watch, I found an uncorrected error in his video, or a mess on the blackboard. But at least it allowed you to look up a technique for how to compute something.

Salman Khan became a darling of the ed establishment, which only made sense if they were sure they could co-opt his product.

Well, yesterday, I looked at Khan Academy. And the only redeeming feature it had, that it let you just look up whatever technique you needed to see, is gone. Now you must sign in. Now it tells you how to do the whole third grade Common Core standards, it seems, and you can work your way through.

I haven't had time to look to the Wayback Machine, so maybe it's still accessible there.  But really, is what's offered now any different than what IXL and ALEKS and the rest of them claim to do?

Am I missing something? Wasn't there once a whole set of Singapore math problems he was supposedly doing and tracking for you? Is that gone, too?

I keep trying to warn schools that parents are going to revolt against this kind of big-data nonsense. They don't believe me. But I think Khan's complete change into yet another of the same-old-same-old will be another nail in that coffin.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Mark your calendar

According to the Hamilton Jobs Gap Calculator, at the current rate of job creation, we will be back to the level of employment we had before the crash in June 2017.

It seems to me that, on the present course, we'll never be "back to trend." Or, rather, the slope of the trend line will continue to decline:

source: Quantitative Easing Is Ending. Here’s What It Did, in Charts.

That is one lousy recovery.

A real recovery is a V-shaped curve. Growth spurts up above the trend line, averaging out the dip, and the trend line remains the same. Back to trend.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say on the subject of L-shaped recoveries:

"An L-shaped recession occurs when an economy has a severe recession and does not return to trend line growth[citation needed] for many years, if ever. The steep drop, followed by a flat line makes the shape of an L. This is the most severe of the different shapes of recession. Alternative terms for long periods of underperformance include "depression" and lost decade; compare also "malaise"."

An L-shaped recovery is a bad thing, but the Federal Reserve has signed off on it, so that's what we've got. Where is Milton Friedman when we need him?

While I'm on the subject of desperately seeking Milton Friedman, is it not possible for journalists and pundits and economists and the like to recall the principles of supply and demand when discussing inequality?

As far as I can tell, the single best medicine for income inequality (if you're concerned about income inequality) is a tight labor market. (The other competitor for single best medicine is closing the trade deficit, also unmentionable in polite punditry, it seems.) Ed has finished a draft of his European history textbook, and has been writing about decades when income inequality plunged because countries were experiencing labor shortages.

When lots of employers are bidding on janitors, the price of a janitor goes up.

I'm in favor of labor shortages myself, but we're not going to see another one in my lifetime, not with the Federal Reserve in charge.

The Federal Reserve believes in a little thing called Nairu. Nobody knows whether the Nairu exists or, if it does, what its value is, but the Fed believes in it, so there is nothing to be done.

I ask myself, not infrequently, whether things would be different if the country at large knew that the Federal Reserve fights inflation by raising unemployment.

Debbie's book is in Amazon's nonfiction top 20!

Steven Pinker, Atul Gawande, and ..... Perfect Score Project!


I did the polish.

(I have to say that!)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Pronouncing "zoonoses"

I see Google Master has a question about students pronouncing "zoonoses" -- I still cannot, to this day, remember how to pronounce zoonoses ... and I'm pretty sure I've been pronouncing it wrong since the day I first encountered the word in Arthur Whimbey's book.

Plus now, on top of that, I have no idea how to pronounce "zoonotic."

The most recent pronunciation look-up I've done for "zoonoses" tells me to pronounce it ZOH-noh-sus (sort of like Jonas's except with a Z), but I can't bring myself to pronounce "zoonotic" ZOH-nah-tick.

How is "zoonotic" pronounced, anyway?

Proposition 3 sails through...

Post at the Parents Forum. (I borrowed Terri W's line about the number of kitchen tables $2B will buy!)

I realized recently that "technology" has three constituencies:
  1. Education reformers who believe in technological "disruption" 
  2. Technology companies (for obvious reasons)
  3. Constructivists - students look at the device, not the teacher
Mobile devices in the classroom may finally accomplish what progressive education has been trying and failing to accomplish for over 100 years.

A line for the ages

"Binge-spending on technology has a poor track record."

Vote No on New York State Propositions 1 and 3, No on Both Suffolk County Propositions

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Stop making sense

Andrew Cuomo's campaign ad:
I want to invest $2 billion dollars to build the new technology classrooms of tomorrow And I still believe the best education equipment is the kitchen table, and the best teacher is the parent.
-Andrew Cuomo
Needless to say, I will be voting 'No' on Proposition 3.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

CDC writing lesson & expert raters using holistic rubrics

I've been meaning to correct the flu-shot post & am doing so now because Linda Seebach has given me a nudge.

When the CDC writes:
"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."
...What they mean is:
Over a period of 30 years, between 1976 and 2006, estimates of annual flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.
It's funny. I think of writing as 'fuzzy' compared to math, but lately I've realized there's a precision to writing, too.

The first sentence means 3,000 over 30 years.

The second sentence, the one the CDC should have written, means 3,000 per year, in some but not all years.

I still question universal flu shots (although I certainly don't object to people getting flu shots if they like), especially given the fact that flu shots aren't particularly effective. Flu vaccine isn't like measles or mumps vaccine; the composition of each year's shot is an informed guess as to which viruses will be making the rounds this year.

As I think I mentioned in the earlier post, I recall a time when health authorities recommended flu shots only for vulnerable populations, not for the entire country. Vulnerable populations included the elderly (for whom vaccine isn't as effective), small children, and, I think, people with respiratory ailments (hence: flu-associated deaths).

Reading between the lines on the CDC page, I wonder whether the universal flu-shot campaign is intended to reduce exposure of vulnerable populations to the flu by reducing the incidence of influenza in non-vulnerable populations.

The elderly don't respond particularly well to flu vaccine.

Their best protection comes from other people not getting the flu, and thus not exposing them.

Thinking about flu shots, I'm reminded of my friend in LA who refused to get flu shots because the only time she ever lost any weight was when she got the flu.

Speaking of precision

Speaking of precision, I'm reading a fascinating study of college writing quality as defined by "expert raters ... using a holistic rubric."

(And, yes, that construction does give me pause. Expert raters using a holistic rubric are the people who decided that my SAT essay on freedom and macroeconomics was worse than my son's SAT essay citing Martin Luther King.)

A major finding: good writing, to an expert rater using a holistic rubric, isn't any more cohesive than bad writing.

Cohesion, pretty much the sine qua non of good writing outside of college, has no bearing one way or another on an expert rater.

Instead, what matters are:
  1. Using lots of words before getting to the main verb (more is better)
  2. Using lots of different words
  3. Using low-frequency words (aka big words
If you've spent any time in academia, you already know this, and it's been a conundrum for me, speaking as an instructor of freshman composition.

Good writing as defined by composition textbooks and style guides isn't good writing as defined by the people grading papers.

Monday, October 27, 2014


Digitopoly on the TI-84

I share his pain.

Does the 21st century have a shortage of software amateurs?

I have absolutely no way of evaluating whether the following is good or bad advice:
“Software developers” is one of the job categories expected to grow the most over the next decade.

But in addition to many thousands of software professionals, we need far more software amateurs. McKinsey & Co. argued a few years ago that we need more than 1.5 million “data-savvy managers” in the U.S. alone if we’re going to succeed with big data, and it’s hard to be data-savvy without understanding how software works.

Even if you’ve left school, it’s not too late. There are many resources available to help you learn how to code at a basic level. The language doesn’t matter.

Learn to code, and learn to live in the 21st century.

Tom Davenport (@tdav) is a Distinguished Professor at Babson College, a research fellow at the Center for Digital Business, director of research at the International Institute for Analytics, and a senior adviser to Deloitte Analytics.

Why All Employees Must Learn to Code | WSJ

Sunday, October 26, 2014


I'm reading the new Ebola book, David Quammen's Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, excerpted from his 2012 book Spillover.

Spillover is the Quammen's term for diseases spilling over from non-human animals to us.

Yesterday I realized that "spillover" isn't a bad term for what seems to be happening to tennis instruction: constructivism and learning-by-doing are spilling over to tennis.

At least, that's the way it looks to me. I hope I'm wrong.

I've re-upped my tennis lessons, on grounds that I need a hobby. This go-round, I've enrolled in a tennis clinic, something I'd never done before.

I've been to three clinics so far, and I'm not seeing much direct instruction.

In the first clinic, the instructor told me "not to think" and to "use your instincts."

I don't have any instincts where tennis is concerned, and the instincts I do have are wrong.

e.g.: When you hit the ball, you're supposed to keep looking at the spot where the ball was instead of following its trajectory back across the net. Looking at the spot where a tennis ball used to be is completely unnatural; every fiber of my being tells me Don't do what Roger Federer does.

Moreover, I find it extremely difficult even to know whether I've kept my head down or not. I need an instructor to tell me.

The clinic went badly enough that I actually walked out of the 2nd class (!), after becoming embroiled in an unwinnable argument with the instructor on the question of my attitude.

The class had been practicing hitting the ball back and forth across the net--no scoring--and I had opted to hit a ball on the second bounce.

I hit the ball on the second bounce because my private instructor usually had me hit second bounces if I could, and because the clinic instructor was himself hitting balls that were out of bounds.

So I thought the rule was: in bounds or out, hit the ball if you can.

But no.

The instructor, who had opened the class by telling me I "didn't belong" but I could stay for the day, told me I had erred, then said primly: "In tennis, when the ball bounces twice, it's out of play."

I said: "I know that."

He said I had no reason to take my frustration out on him.

I said "You were hitting balls that are out, I thought we were supposed to hit balls that are out if we can."

He said, again, that I was frustrated and I should not take my frustration out on him.

Naturally I denied having done any such thing; he said I had but I "didn't know it"; I said I hadn't; he said I had ---- the whole scene was ludicrous.

We were now swatting Did/Did not back and forth across our own invisible net, and the exchange was turning into a very long rally indeed, leaving the other two ladies in the class standing clueless on the opposite baseline, undoubtedly wondering what was going on and when we were going to start having a class again.

At one point I tried to end the quarrel by telling the instructor, who was young enough to be my son and then some, that in life, when you say something that has obviously ticked off another person  (especially another person old enough to be your mother), you take it back. 

That's how you get along with people. 

He swatted that one right back at me, saying, yet again, that I was frustrated, and I was directing my frustration at him.

He wasn't going to give an inch, and I certainly wasn't going to give an inch, seeing as how I'm twice the instructor's age and I'm the customer to boot.

So I left, with the instructor still calling after me "You have no reason to act like this."


Back to 'spillover,' the instructor's approach to teaching tennis had a fair amount to do with the fact that our dissing war erupted in the first place.

His approach was simply to run drills: advanced drills only one student in the class was remotely equipped to do. Forehand, backhand, volley, lob. Very difficult. We were starting at the top, beginning with the 'whole,' not the component parts, and with predictable results. Nobody could maintain any form to speak of, and there were multiple mis-hits and outright whiffs.

After the drills (this was a beginner's class, by the way), we "practiced" serving, also with zero instruction. My classmates were dinking the ball across the net, and so was I.

Then we played doubles tennis for points and we were supposed to have strategy.

We were learning tennis by playing tennis.

Except nobody was learning.


My third clinic, with a different teacher, was a much happier experience, and the instructor gave plenty of direct instruction. She was also responsive; as soon as she saw that I wanted  intervention and instruction, she provided it.

But still, she wasn't breaking things down.

In her class, too, we were doing the same advanced drills none of us could do .... and then, when we played a game, the instructor told us 10 Things About Doubles Strategy we were supposed to remember and use.

There's no way a beginner can remember 10 Things About Doubles Strategy, not while also attempting actually to do those 10 Things and get the ball back across the net.

More learning tennis by playing tennis.


I'm told that tennis instruction used to be different. Tennis teachers worked on form & watched as their students practiced technique over and over until they had it down.

That approach seems to be fading, and I blame spillover from our public schools.

People teaching tennis or continuing education classes are teaching the way K-12 teachers teach writing and math and grammar. Via discovery.

Their experience of schooling didn't instill within them a gut understanding that memory is limited, that subjects and skills must be broken down into bite-size pieces a student can remember long enough to practice and master.

So they run drills and have students play pretend doubles.


Now Ed is giving me lessons --- we are becoming an afterschooling family for tennis.

And I'll take more private lessons, the grown-up equivalent of hiring a tutor.

Talk about spillover.

Lockhart's lament redux

"The essence of mathematics is recognizing interesting patterns in interesting abstractions of reality and finding properties of those patterns and abstractions."

Everything About The Way We Teach Math Is Wrong
This strikes me as completely wrong, not that I have much confidence in my intuitions concerning the essence of math. So take this as a confession, not an argument.

"Recognizing interesting patterns" -- even "recognizing interesting patterns in interesting abstractions of reality" -- strikes me as the toolkit approach to math.

I personally -- another confession, not an argument -- can't stand the toolkit approach to math. Blech!

I have no interest -- none! -- in endless iterations of function problems designed to determine how much profit the guitar teacher will make teaching x number of students while paying y rent on the studio for 20 weeks, or whether Jim should buy the monthly contract or the annual, as useful and important as those questions are in daily living.

Nor do I relish the thought of encountering yet another roller coaster depicted as yet another instance of geometry, or another textbook with a nautilus shell splashed across the cover. Enough with the nautili.

If you want to make me hate math, real-world math will do the job.

That reminds me.

I did not, as a child, solve two trains leaving the station problems, and I wish I had. I was utterly charmed by the two-trains problems when I encountered them as an adult, working my way through "Russian Math."*

I don't remember whether we were asked to solve bathtub problems (I think we were), and I was charmed by those problems, too.

(Speaking of the real world, the bathtub problem is all you need to know to understand why fiscal stimulus doesn't work when the Federal Reserve targets inflation. One party is putting money into the system; the other party is taking it back out.)

To be fair, I'm not at all sure that "toolkit math" is what Lockhart actually means: "That’s what math is — wondering, playing, amusing yourself with your imagination."

Nevertheless, inside K-12, the toolkit approach is what look-for-patterns turns into.

Look for patterns may be a bit out of date.

Today, with Common Core, at least here in NY, we've moved beyond look-for-patterns to modeling, for pete's sake. In my district, the entire high school mathematics curriculum, the entire rationale for the entire mathematics curriculum, is modeling.

Lots and lots of function problems modeling stuff nobody cares about.

This is always the conundrum with constructivism and progressive education.

Progressive educators think the real world is fun and motivating.

* Mathematics 6 by Enn Nurk and Aksel Telgmaa