kitchen table math, the sequel: easy is better

Friday, January 23, 2009

easy is better

from Steve:
My son has a teacher who is known for making her 7th grade social studies class hard. The idea is to toughen the kids up for high school. The assumption is that real learning is a difficult process. I feel like telling her that any teacher can make a class hard. It's more difficult, however, to make the class easy. There seems to be the idea that if you make learning easy, kids will never learn to do it on their own. You have to take an indirect, or discovery approach to really remember the material.

What if you came up with a direct, easy approach that could teach kids about fractions, percents, and decimals. Would you not use it? [answer: no] Thematic, real world, group discovery learning is supposed to be fun, interesting, and effective in both what you learn and how your learn. Too bad it doesn't work and wastes a lot of time. That's OK, because they want to emphasize the process and not the results. Perhaps that's why they don't like tests. Answers are not as important as the process.

I have no patience with educators who pride themselves on being "hard."

Hard work: yes, if (and only if) the kids are learning a lot. Hard to understand, hard to learn: no.

Ditto for the idea that a school's job is done once students have been "challenged." As I once told the now-retired science chair here: If I wrote challenging books, instead of books on challenging subjects that people can read and understand, we wouldn’t be living in Irvington. As a general rule, people don't like hard stuff. They like easy stuff, and rightly so:

Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwarz wanted to see if they could motivate a group of 20-year-old college students to exercise regularly—not an easy task. They gave all the students written instructions for a regular exercise routine, but they used a simple but ingenious method to make the how-to instructions either cognitively palatable or challenging: Some got instructions printed in Arial typeface, a plain font designed for easy reading. Others got their instructions printed in a Brush font, which basically looks like it’s been written by hand with a Japanese paintbrush; it’s unfamiliar and much harder to read.

There are a lot of ways to make something mentally palatable, or not. You can used clear and simple language, or arcane vocabulary words; simple sentences or convoluted sentences with lots of clauses. The psychologists chose typeface because it’s easy to manipulate in the lab. After the students had all read the instructions, they asked them some questions about the exercise regimen: how long they thought it would take, whether it would flow naturally or drag on endlessly, whether it would be boring, and so forth. They also queried them on whether they were likely to make exercise a routine part of their day.

The findings were remarkable. Those who had read the exercise instructions in an unadorned, accessible typeface were much more open to the prospect of exercising: They believed that the regimen would take less time and that it would feel more “fluid” and easy. Most important, they were more willing to make exercise part of their day. Apparently, the students’ brains mistook the ease of reading about exercise for ease of actually doing the pushups and crunches, and this misunderstanding motivated them to actually think about a life change. Those who struggled through the Japanese brushstrokes had no intention of heading to the gym; the reading alone tired them out.

A Recipe for Motivation
by Wray Herbert
If schools were accountable for results, you'd hear a lot less twiddle-twaddle about "challenge" and "hard." Just ask KUMON. Or Fluenz. Or Pimsleur. Or hell, just about anyone trying to sell you an educational product of any kind. Do book publicists write ad copy telling folks, "Buy this book. It's hard"?

No. They don't.

Even Jay Mathews has modified his approach to the "Challenge Index." In the past, all schools made it onto the list if they had a high number of students taking AP courses & the AP test. How students actually did on the test wasn't part of the index; hence the term "Challenge." The Challenge Index measures challenge, not achievement.


Remind me again.

Exactly what are we paying these people to do?

make them struggle
education professors: students must struggle
KUMON: "work that can be easily completed"
handing it to the student


concernedCTparent said...

I just began reading Talent is Overrated in which the premise is that deliberate practice, and not talent, is the primary determinant of success. So far, one of the more memorable examples have been Mozart and Tiger Woods who most of consider to be the rare geniuses that were born that way. Geoffe Colvin emphasizes that both Mozart and Tiger Woods received "heavy instruction from an expert teacher" who lived with them (their fathers in both cases). In addition to working furiously hard at what they do, many of those we consider to be talented, or gifted, or just really, really good at something are successful because they also received expert instruction in the art of deliberate practice.

SteveH said...

I love Ariel, and it should give educators a clue to see people buy books with Dummies or Idiot in the title when the assumption is that the one purchasing the book is an idiot or dummy.

I'm a prototype learner. I like to start with a very simple understanding of the mechanics of the material or process. It is anti-thematic and anti-discovery.
Once I've mastered that material, I can add on a little bit of something new as I go along; nice bite-sized, easily-learned pieces. This isn't rote learning. It's just bottom-up learning. It's more rigorous and it leads to a more complete understanding of the material. Discovery ends only with a conceptual understanding. You still have to master the basics. As much as educators like to deny it, there is linkage between mastery and understanding.

SteveH said...

"... is the primary determinant of success."

I would say that it depends on your definition of success. It's absolutely true for anything we talk about in K-12, but if the author is trying to reduce the brilliance of someone like Mozart to practice, then I would disagree. Natural talent is very real, but it's no guarantee of success. It can, however, lead to better teachers and a willingness to work that much harder.

I would rather focus on something like algebra in 8th grade and the apparent idea by many educators that this is unnatural; that it requires a math brain. You don't need to to denigrate natural talent (math brains) to argue this position. Schools just have to ask parents of the successful students how they got there. My son has lots of natural talent, but he (we) also work hard at home. Nobody at his school asks us about this. Real data is right there. All they have to do is ask. They just don't want to know about any correlation between their best students and extra tutoring outside of school.

concernedCTparent said...

The idea that you don't need a math brain to do algebra in 8th grade is exactly the type of argument the author is making when he discusses Mozart and Tiger Woods. His evidence as to Mozart, which I had never heard, have yet to verify, and found somewhat counterintuitive was as follows:

"In some cases it's clear that the young boy's compositions are not original. Wolfgang's first four piano concertos, composed when he was eleven, actually contain no original music by him. He put them together out of works by other composers. [...] None of these works is regarded today as great music or even close. They are rarely performed or recorded except as novelties, of interest only because of Mozart's later fame. They seem instead to be the works of someone being trained as a composer by the usual methos-- copying, arranging, and imitating the works of others-- with the resulting products brought to the world's attention (and just maybe polished a bit) by a father who spent much of his life promoting his son. Mozart's first work regarded today as a masterpiece, with its status confirmed by the number of recordings available, is his Piano Concerto No. 9, composed when he was twenty-one. That's certainly an early age, but we must remember that by then Wolfgang had been through eighteen years of extremely hard, expert training."

So, there you have it. Leopold Mozart- helicopter parent. Would Wolfgang had developed his genius without this upbringing? Are there other Wolfgang's languishing in our schools unchallenged and unpolished who will never meet their potential (wheter in music, math, or some other discipline)? I have to believe there are and that's terribly unfortunate.

Further, Colvin adds "Surviving manuscripts show that Mozart was constantly revising, reworking, crossing out and rewriting whole sections, jotting down fragments and putting them aside for months or years. Though it makes the results no less magnificent, he wrote music the way ordinary humans do." Here lies the argument for expert teaching, for they type of discipline and hard work your son has placed his energy into.

Of course, success is a complex thing to quantify or define-- in some disciplines more than in others. I'm too early in the book to determine if the author makes a convincing attempt to bridge the gray area between the nature-nurture argument. I'll just have to see if I buy it when I finish that last page.

No doubt, though. You're right Steve. The data is there, but they don't want to know.

SteveH said...

"Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else"

This is a tough case to justify, and quite unnecessary to make his point (except for sales). People would love to think of everyone as being equal. The tough part is "world-class", especially when you are trying to apply it to people like Mozart. It's tempting to make this leap, but there is so much evidence against it. Average people can achieve world-class status, but that doesn't mean they are the same as people like Mozart. Hard work can overcome raw talent, but the learning slopes are not the same.

I would suggest that a better approach is to show how average people achieve great heights, not how Mozart is really no different than the rest of us. I like the stories from teachers who show great transformations just by using better teaching techniques.

concernedCTparent said...

I agree with you. In fact, Colvin addresses learning slopes at the very beginning of the book. Mozart was never ordinary. He was, indeed, extraordinary. The question that's now nagging me, however, is would he be Mozart without having been the son of Leopold? This goes beyond genetics- it's an argument that supports the importance of expert teaching coupled with deliberate practice. That intrigues me because I find the application to education in general to be significant. I also find it be an argument in support of "helicopter parenting"-- something the education establishment frowns upon and discourages.

Anonymous said...

--The question that's now nagging me, however, is would he be Mozart without having been the son of Leopold?

Of course not. Note that while a genius, he was not a genius at painting or drawing or sculpture or math or science. Why not? Because he wasn't in a family of painters or sculptors or mathematicians or scientists. Maybe if he had been, he would have been one of the above instead. Or maybe he'd just have been mediocre as one of the above instead.

Tiger Woods is a phenomenal example, though, that it doesn't require EXPERT teaching--just teaching. And not every time, either--with a limited amount of teaching, we can then self correct. But the Tigers of the world self correct even better.

Our brains do both supervised learning, where a trainer tells you ""hold your wrist this way" and you correct, and something cogsci folks call reinforcement learning, which is a kind of unsupervised learning. Reinforcement learning is where you get better just by somehow seeing the outcome of what you did. For example, throw a ball at a target 100 times. You'll be better at throwing it and hitting the target just by your brain making un/sub/conscious corrections to your throw based on where the prior throws ended up, without any explicit correction--and without any explicit "that was a bad throw".

Additionally, children are special. The "it just takes practice" argument as simplified does not explain why 10,000 hours between the ages of 3 and 13 matter so much more than between the ages of 53 and 63, but we all know that they do. Childrens' brains are phenomenally plastic.

But talent matters. This is why somehow, my husband can try to teach my son how to swing a baseball bat and it takes my son 3 tries before he gets it right, even though my husband needs 30 tries. My husband can't even give expert advice, but just advice and reinforcement learning is enough. When someone has talent, they need less examples, they are able to do more and better reinforcement learning without the teacher at the time.

Hard work cannot explain why the people at the very tip top of their disciplines are phenomenally better than those just a bit below. Why is Tiger so so so so much better than Mickelson, Els, and the rest--he's definitely improved their game! but they are still not in the same league. Why did Sasha Cohen fail to get the olympic gold over and over again?

Hard work does not give you the mental and emotional capacity to not crack under pressure. You can be excellent at training, practice, and hard work. It is not enough. The truly best have a talent that makes them thrive under pressure, to raise their game, to make them electrifying.

And the reason helicopter parenting is so maligned is because it works. How DARE you make your child better than I am making my child! We must use shame to stop this in-group spread from widening! It relates one of those schizophrenic education myths, where the ed schools say they want every child to excel at their own thing, but they desperately don't want in group separation at all.

SteveH said...

"How DARE you make your child better than I am making my child!"

Does anyone have any clear examples of this? The only direct comment I remember was when I told another parent (I think she was a teacher's assistant) that my son was moving to a private school in second grade. She made some crack about how she hoped he had time left over for play. I felt like telling her that at least it won't be all play.

This raises a related issue. Many parents don't set high expectations of learning in K-6; learn to read, do some math, and learn how to get along with other kids. I even had an attorney friend tell me that it doesn't much matter until you get to high school. If I went to the school board and asked for higher expectations or homogeneous classes, it would be a direct attack on this belief (and the control of the school). Some wouldn't want it because it might put their kids at a disadvantage.

I also felt competitive resentment from other parents. Catherine talked about this sort of thing before. I helped my son skip 6th grade Everyday Math to go directly to pre-algebra. I was able to manage this when my son came back to the public schools. Perhaps some of the resentment is that other parents didn't know this sort of thing could be done. Perhaps they know that something is wrong with the math instruction, but they can't quite figure it out.

Many don't like helicopter parents because it makes them feel like they have to do more for their kids. Actually, most of us helicopter parents would love to get out of the business and have schools do the job. I'd love to stick with just the enrichment part.

Anonymous said...

The counselor spoke to my daughter's 8th grade class last week about planning their 9th grade schedule. She said they spent most of the time telling them to sign up for the easiest classes. The high school has several different classes for each subject, such as English 9 (easier) and English I (harder). For freshman science, they offer Earth Science, Basic Biology (easy), Biology 1 (harder), or Foundations of Biology (honors) They encouraged them to sign up for Earth Science instead of Biology, English 9 and History 9, explaining that the "I" level classes and Biology were much too difficult for 9th graders. She said they went on and on about how 8th graders weren't prepared for the amount of reading and homework necessary to do well in those classes.

(I realize this is hearsay from an 8th grader, but other parents have heard the same story from their kids, so I tend to think she's telling it like it was.)

My daughter's TAG teacher told them to ignore that advice, and that last year's 8th graders have informed her that the "hardest" classes were only a little more demanding than what they had taken in middle school, and no one was having the least bit of trouble with them.

I've spent a lot of time and energy trying to get my kids to accept challenges and work hard. It irks me no end for the school to turn around and tell them to opt for the easiest path.

Tracy W said...

Oh Locasta, what a horrible story. I am inclined to think that counsellors are a waste of money at schools - there was one who told one of my uni friends that she needed to do maths with statistics, not maths with calculus, to get into engineering school, exactly the wrong way around.

Anonymous said...


I have an 8th grader taking honors bio at the high school and he loves it. He's having no trouble at all. Granted, he has an excellent teacher who puts most of the notes on powerpoint, but even in the absence of that, I believe he would have been fine.

I actually brought it up at the end of 7th grade because I knew he was bored with his middle school science classes. My son is thought of as a "math" kid and honors bio is more about reading than math. Since I had had him take the ACT that year, the high school asked to see his scores. When they received them, they informed us that he would have no problem with the class. (My guess is that if you crack the 20's in reading they believe you can handle the text.)

I guess my point is that most everyone I talked to about it warned me about how hard a class it was. I even went to the high school to look at the textbook since I knew, once again, that I was alone in advocating for him. It turned out to be the best thing and the best match for him.


Anonymous said...

My children attended 4 different school systems in 3 states and in all cases, the guidance counselor was worse than useless. None of them had any real interest in academics, but were very much interested in emotional issues such as breaking up with boy/girlfriend, college rejections, social-group interactions etc. All of my kids were told not to take more than 2 freshman Honors courses (even in a school where the whole top 25% took ALL Honors and AP). In my youngest child's school, I was told (at a School Board meeting) that passing enough AP classes to start college as a full sophomore (as did all of mine)was far too much work and didn't allow for anything else. Of course, that same meeting was ripe with disdain for "those elitists" who did serious music or serious travel sports. Fortunately, my child, who did both the APs and travel sports, didn't care what the staff and most of the students thought, but I was surprised at the level of animosity openly expressed toward those students and parents with the highest expectations and achievements.