kitchen table math, the sequel: another nail in the coffin

Thursday, July 9, 2009

another nail in the coffin

Is Traditional Teaching Really All that Bad?

answer: no


SteveH said...

Has anyone ever seen a school where students have the same math teacher each year up through 6th or 8th grade? (other than home school) I suspect that this is too dangerous for schools to attempt. First, it will be clear that there are huge differences between teachers, and second, all of the parents will know too.

le radical galoisien said...

In Singapore, in Fairfield Primary. But for 2 years.

After the streaming that occurs after the Primary Four exams (at the tender age of 10!), you have the same *form* teacher (homeroom teacher) for P5 and P6. Happened that my form teacher taught math and science.

I don't know if they couple form teachers in the lower primary years -- possibly this is done but I didn't attend Singapore primary school from P1 to P4. I do know that beloved Chinese teachers often taught a class for years. (And this especially applied for other mother tongues like Malay or Tamil.)

My Singapore primary form teacher lectured a lot. But I didn't realise then because she never made it feel like a lecture.

Well, the only times it felt like a lecture was when she was tired, or the class had made some big behavioural booboo (e.g. that one time where some of the prefects had suppressed their duties while she was out and the class goofed off.) And suddenly she would be all especially quiet and somber with us and we'd know that uh-oh, something's wrong.

She did routinely divide the class up into groups to compete against each other. The kind of competitions where you get shown a certain math problem and the group prepares a collective answer on transparency.

It would be PSLE-style word problems, so you'd have to show each step of your working. A 5-point problem demanded 5-point working. And if it wasn't group work, she'd constantly pull students from their seats to solve problems on the board.

Funny thing is, we didn't spend a lot of time at school compared to Americans. For our primary school, if you were in the AM session, assembly began at 7:20 am, classes began at 7:40 am and finished at 12:55. (PM session began 12:40 pm, classes began 1:00 pm and finished 6:15 pm.) But there was never a "slow moment" in that four-times-a-week hour of math. Except for maybe those 5 minutes before recess on particular days of the week.

The other thing that I don't see that often any more is classwork that was started in class and finished in class. In 20 minutes. And I'm not talking exams, which only take place four times a year (March, June, August and end of October.)

And my form teacher was remarkably attentive, constantly looking over our backs. (At that time, I was essentially an Americanised elementary school graduate who had suddenly been plopped into the Singaporean education system, see... I got into all sorts of hot water immediately.)

Anonymous said...

At my daughter's middle school, they had a program called 'Connections'. These students stayed in the program for all three years of middle school and were taught by the same teachers.
Their math teacher was the formidable Mrs. Fox who developed her own curriculum and used that. It was traditional math to the nth degree. She told me once that all a student had to know when he/she walked into her class was basic math facts and she could make sure that they were ready for high school math after three years.

So all the students stayed together in 6th ad 7th grade, but only students who passed a specific proficiency test were allowed to take algebra. I called it 'Algebra Bootcamp'. The rest of the students still had Mrs. Fox but were taught the regular 8th grade math.

When the middle school brought in the IB program and the state required that all 8th graders take algebra, the 'Connections' program was disbanded. The good news is that now all students get to have Mrs. Fox for algebra.

The teaching at my daughter's middle school is very traditional. It reminds me of my Catholic school in the 60's. My daughter actually diagrammed sentences and had tests on grammar terms that were so obscure, I couldn't help her with it.

In math, they stayed on a topic until it had been presented thoroughly and in every way possible. She struggled throughout the year, but ended up with an A- and an excellent foundation. It's too bad she had to sit through K-5 of Everyday Math before she finally go to middle school.

Anne Dwyer

Catherine Johnson said...

Anne - that is unbelievable.

I have NEVER heard of a rigorous middle school ---- ????

Do you have any idea how this school came to be?

Also: what do you think of the middle school IB program? I studied the IB web site a couple of years ago & was disturbed by what it said - but that's the web site, not necessarily the reality.

Anonymous said...

Catherine -

Could you tell us what you found alarming? I have my own concerns and our middle school has begun an IB program.

Catherine Johnson said...

It was pure constructivism. Start to finish. Everything was "connected;" there were circles within circles; and, as I recall, there was an intense emphasis upon 'values,' 'character education,' and on and on.

I remember Ed being particularly scandalized by an essay on Stalin, of all people, which argued that while Stalin had been a cultured man, he had not been a wise one. Thus schools can't focus exclusively upon transmitting knowledge and culture from one generation to the next. A knowledgeable, cultured person could grow up to be Stalin, and that would be bad.

Needless to say, Stalin was not a cultured man.

Catherine Johnson said...

Found it.

Haven't re-read the paper, but here's the closing passage:

International education has a role to impart an ethic for the future of humanity. Not to impose
but to allow students to discover and reflect for themselves. It should provide students with material on global issues, responses from some of the world's most creative thinkers and the opportunity to discuss. Without
values students may be 'clever, knowledgeable, even wondrously creative, but they will never become citizens of the world nor give it their gifts as should those who have known a true international education.'25

When Stalin died there was a tape recording of Mozart's Piano Concerto in D minor, which he
listened to frequently, next to his bed. He had specially requested it some years before when he had
heard it broadcast on the radio. Like many despotic leaders before and since, Stalin was not lacking
in culture but lacking in education for humanity.

Curriculum development and ethics in international education by Ian Hill

Here's Wikipedia's account of Stalin's "childhood and early adult crime":

Stalin was born on 18 December 1878 in Gori, Georgia to a family of limited financial means in a town plagued by gang warfare and street brawls. At seven, he contracted smallpox, which permanently scarred his face. At twelve, two horse-drawn carriage accidents left his left arm permanently damaged. At ten, he began attending a church school that required the Georgian children to speak Russian. At sixteen, he received a scholarship to a Georgian Orthodox seminary, where he wrote poetry and rebelled against being forced to speak Russian. Though he performed well, he was expelled shortly before his final exams because he was unable to pay his tuition fees.

Shortly after leaving the Seminary, he discovered the writings of Vladimir Lenin and decided to become a Marxist revolutionary. He began organizing strikes in 1902 and joined the Bolsheviks in 1903. Stalin at first worked against the Mensheviks and, during the Russian Revolution of 1905, he organized and armed Bolshevik militias across Georgia, running protection rackets waging guerrilla warfare on Cossacks, policemen and the Okhrana. After meeting Lenin at a Bolshevik conference, Stalin returned to Georgia, and plotted the assassination of a Cossack general with the Mensheviks, while raising money for the Bolsheviks through extortion, bank robberies and hold-ups.

Writing poetry at school does not a "cultured" person make.

For my money, the claim that Stalin was cultured but not humane is essentially anti-intellectual. Certainly, it seems at odds with what I take to be the Jeffersonian concept of public education.

Also, having experienced it firsthand, I reject the kind of character education that assumes any young person could grow up to be Stalin.

Apart from all this, however, I'm deeply put off by the use of wrong history to make a point. Ian Hill is the Deputy Director of IBO; he should know a thing or two about Stalin -- or he should know to look it up.

Amy P said...

Thinking Stalin was cultured is historically pretty bad. What do you think, Exo?

IB for high school might be OK, but I remember looking at a website for an IB elementary school in suburban MD and being horrified by it. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but the problem was that they wanted to do interdisciplinary stuff at the elementary level, so they were going to have the kiddies doing interdisciplinary research projects on pollution of the Chesapeake Bay. Talk about developmentally inappropriate!

Catherine Johnson said...

Amy - that was exactly my experience. I was horrified by the middle school curriculum (but not necessarily horrified by the high school curriculum).

I'm positive IB math isn't good, however. Did I tell you all that I talked to a kid here who had an IB program in his high school?

He said the calculus course was a joke.

He had to write a paper.

He went to engineering school -- Renssalaer -- and was underprepared (though he did fine - he caught up rapidly).


This kid was a math/science kid, and he actively disliked the IB program.

That, combined with the web site & David Klein's original review of IB calculus, is enough for me to stick with AP courses.

Anonymous said...

I've heard quite a bit from other parents about the various magnet programs in the DC area and I'd agree that IB isn't the best fit for math/science types. Some of the local high schools have had very strong math/science AP programs for decades. I know that Wootton (Montgomery County, MD) regularly competed successfully against the top math/science magnets in the country in math and science competitions. I don't know if they still use the same structure, but all the AP sciences used to be second-level courses, preceded by the Honors course, and all were double-period. 80-85% of the kids typically had 4 or 5 on the AP tests. The IB programs had nothing comparable. The only calculus offered was BC.

le radical galoisien said...

It really depends on the school.

ACSI in Singapore has implemented the IB program since 2004.

IB, despite being 'international', really assimilates to each host country's culture.

As I recall, the highest level math exams in IB cover linear algebra and ordered differential equations -- presumably that's what they would have to cover in Singapore in order to be eligible to replace the British A-levels.

Anonymous said...

"Thinking Stalin was cultured is historically pretty bad. What do you think, Exo?"

Amy, being "cultured" at that time could be a pretty dangerous thing - linking a person to "nobility", which could result in prison or death. Stalin, obviosly, recieved less education than Lenin, who came from "inelligentsia" and studied to be a lawyer. However, I remember reading somewhere, that Stalin's biographers (and Stalin himself) tended to diminish the education he had as well as to appear him coming up from the bottom of the society. It's very difficult to say now. He had enough "smarts" to intrigue his way up though.


Catherine Johnson said...


Ed says he was not 'cultured' -- this seems to be something historians know.

Or think they know!

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I didn't do much research about the whole IB thing. I do know that there have, so far, been two consequences to the new program that I have noticed:

The first is that they added a class called 'Reading'. So now students get one class of Literature and one class of Reading. I think this was incredibly helpful for my daughter. She was not a reader before this class, and now she is.

They changed the language choices. Now you have to pick either Chinese or Spanish in the 6th grade and stick with it all the way through high school. I'm not very impressed with our spanish instruction anyway, so this is not a change.

As for the math education, I did ask Mrs. Fox about the math education in the International Academy program that we have here. I trust her opinion and she said that is was very good. I didn't get any details.

Our state, Michigan, has put in new graduation requirements. Students who are now juniors and below have the following requirement to get a diploma:
4 years of math including Algebra 2
3 years of science including biology and either chemistry or physics
4 years of literature
The previous requirement: one civics class.

Don't ask me how we are going to make sure that every student passes Algebra 2.

Anne Dwyer