kitchen table math, the sequel: down and out in San Diego

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

down and out in San Diego

from the Weekly Standard:

There he was, Bill Ayers himself, sitting in a Marriott conference room waiting to partake in a session of the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).


[H]e is something of an AERA celebrity these days, having been elected vice president of its curriculum-studies division--which specializes in research on what teachers teach, both at the ed-school level and in the K-12 classrooms where most ed-school graduates find employment. He participated in no fewer than seven panels and events at this year's convention. AERA, by the way, with 25,000 members, is the leading scholarly organization for professors at U.S. education schools--the people who teach the teachers who teach your children. Its annual meeting drew nearly 14,000 people to the San Diego Convention Center in April.


At this particular session, titled "Public Pedagogy and Social Action: Examinations and Portraits," Ayers was chairman of the panel.


The room quieted when William Schubert, a black-clad, armband-wearing fellow education professor at Illinois-Chicago, introduced the social-action theme of the session by declaring, "The project of education is the project of composing a life."

After a few dismissive words apparently aimed at the practice of requiring education majors to obtain a basic arts-and-sciences grounding alongside their pedagogic fare, Schubert introduced the first panelist, Jennifer April Sandlin of Arizona State. Her research had consisted of email interviews with Reverend Billy, an Elvis-haired anti-Wal-Mart street preacher who is currently running as Green party candidate for mayor of New York and whom Sandlin presented as an example of public pedagogy.

Sandlin's interview questions, laminated in triple-clad academic jargon, had evidently flummoxed Reverend Billy. "Why don't you professors stop leaning further and further into your private world?" he had complained in an email to Sandlin. Her explication of the preacher's message, aided by her coresearcher, Jake Burdick, included the following words and phrases: "bounded space," "reinscribe," "alterity," "counter-hegemonic," "imperialistic legacy," "Euro-Western perspective," "polymodal discourse," "the politics of representation," "reflexivity of discomfort," "legitimization," "colonized," "transgressive," and "the dialogic process of being human." I knew how Reverend Billy felt.


Finally Ayers rose to speak--delivering an impromptu-sounding ramble that had little to do with murals or creativity in classrooms. He named his two heroes: "Martin Luther King and Harvey Milk." He voiced dialectical doubts: "Multicultural education started in insurgency against pedagogical racism," he declared. "Then it became the new norm. We have to ask: What are the dogmas that we're creating now?"

On that last point I was in hearty agreement.

math wars

During my four days at the AERA meeting, I vainly searched for a single session whose panelists expressed some dissent from the baseline principle of progressive education: that teachers shouldn't directly impart information to their students but instead function as "guides," gently coaching them to "construct" their own knowledge about the subject at hand out of what they already know or don't know.

"Everyone here is a constructivist," Gabriel Reich, a genial education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told me at a reception sponsored by the John Dewey Society. (Dewey, a pragmatist philosopher who died in 1952 and taught for years at Columbia Teachers College, is regarded, alongside the Swiss cognitive psychologist Jean Piaget, as one of the fathers of progressive education.) Reich was trying to explain to me why it was presumptuous for professional mathematicians (and many parents) to be up in arms about the currently fashionable constructivist idea that instead of explaining to youngsters, say, how to do long division, teachers should let them count, subtract, make an educated guess, or otherwise figure out their own ways to solve division problems. College math professors may complain that young people taught the constructivist way arrive in their classrooms unable to perform the basic operations necessary to move on to calculus, but so what? "Why should we privilege professional mathematicians?" Reich asked. Long division, multiplication--"those are just algorithms, and a calculator can do them faster than we can. Most of the people here at this meeting don't think of themselves as good at math, and they don't think math is creative. [The constructivist approach] is a way to make math creative for many people who never thought of it that way."

There are no wrong answers in constructivist theory, so Reich, pursuing his mathematical theme, had a tough sell the next day when he presented a paper to his fellow educators arguing that the principles of constructivism should be modified a bit in teaching arithmetic. "I know some constructivists might take issue with what I'm saying," was his delicate way of telling his audience that when a student says two and two equals five, there might be a problem, if only with the child's non-constructivist parents who might have "right-answer" concerns. Reich was suggesting that the youngster's incorrect (or "incorrect") answer be "vetted by the class" to see if it "works." That way, he explained, "the students are learning to act as members of a mathematical community--they are becoming mathematicians."

and PowerPoint

Another session, titled "Teaching and Assessing 21st-Century Skills," was premised on the idea that schools ought to focus, not on imparting content--such as history, science, and so forth--but on getting their students up to speed on how to function in the fast-changing employment market of the 21st century by learning how to use computers and how to work with their fellows on a "project" (that is what people do at their jobs nowadays, isn't it?). Once young people get their 21st-century skills down, the thinking goes, they can learn and plug in whatever specific knowledge they need: math, physics, and engineering if they're designing a bike path, and so forth. Addressing an audience of nearly a hundred people (a huge crowd for AERA), the six advocates for "project-based learning," as it is called, fairly bristled with Dilbert-esque office lingo as they urged teachers to turn their classrooms into replicas of technology-intense workplaces: "deliverables," "teamwork," "feedback," "use cases," "design patterns," "meta-cognitive," "framing," "the next level of learning." They had also mastered that 21st-century skill par excellence: the PowerPoint presentation, read aloud line by line and bullet point by bullet point. Indeed, a PowerPoint screen displaying a verbatim version of the speech plus more bullets than flew at the St. Valentine's Day Massacre was a feature of nearly every AERA session I attended.

reform, too

At the AERA sessions, I lived in an ideological Bizarro World in which "school reform" did not mean improving classroom instruction but rather, handing over multimillion-dollar state grants (in Illinois) to the control of, among other entities, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)--a group being prosecuted for alleged voter-registration fraud in the 2008 election--so that ACORN can help direct the subsidization of the candidates of its choice for ed-school training. It was a world in which at a session on Queer Theory, one teacher-panelist announced, "I'll sometimes ask my students, 'Why can't a girl have a penis?' and you know, they start asking themselves the same question: Why can't a girl have a penis? Why can't a girl with a penis wear a skirt?"
'Why Can't a Girl Have a Penis?' and other major issues in educational research.
by Charlotte Allen
05/18/2009, Volume 014, Issue 33

They're none too keen on Teach for America, either.


Independent George said...

What gets me is that (1) they'd never say any of this stuff in front of parents; their entire M.O. is to sell their program in moderate, common-sense terms, and (2) they have ideological immunity; because they are progressives, they get a free pass from mainstream liberals who would otherwise be up in arms over the end result of this radicalism. Hence, Jay "there's no such thing as constructivism" Matthews, who doesn't make the connection between this crap with the achievement gap.

Allison said...

I love how the student doesn't exist.

""Why should we privilege professional mathematicians?" Reich asked."

That's right: teaching multiplication tables and long division and the rest is giving THE MATH PROFESSORS an unfair advantage!

[ Long division, multiplication--]"those are just algorithms, and a calculator can do them faster than we can. Most of the people here at this meeting don't think of themselves as good at math, and they don't think math is creative. [The constructivist approach] is a way to make math creative for many people who never thought of it that way."

FOR THE TEACHERS. The constructivist approach is about creativity for the TEACHERS.

NOT ONE of them cares about the advantages for THE STUDENT. It's all about power struggle games between teachers, academics, and worldviews.

Allison said...

It's time to read about the educational movements in Honduras. Quite the harbinger it may turn out to be.

Independent George said...

NOT ONE of them cares about the advantages for THE STUDENT. It's all about power struggle games between teachers, academics, and worldviews.

Isn't that the logical endpoint to post-modernism?

Allison said...

Yes, it is. It's all about F***ing the Establishment. So if the students aren't on board with that, then the heck with them, too. And if they are, well then they don't really need to do long division, do they?

SteveH said...

How important or influential is AREA? Do they influence or do they just reflect?

Redkudu said...

"So if the students aren't on board with that, then the heck with them, too."

My observation has been, among constructivist teachers I've spoken with, that if the students aren't on board it's believed to be because they've been brainwashed by the kill and drill, and all their creativity has been sapped from them by teachers who don't want students to think on their own. As if instruction rather than "facilitation" is abuse.

I was having this conversation with a second year English teacher just yesterday. She's into social contracts (another middle school creep) has just attended writing workshop training, and her big goal this year is to instill autonomy, critical thinking, and creativity in her students. No mention of building vocabulary or strengthening writing skills. She picks my brain occasionally because I'm highly structured and she, having been trained as a constructivist educator, is perplexed as to how I can teach like that. She doesn't understand that structure is not the enemy of creativity.

>>From the article: ""We don't allow a lot of creativity in classrooms," Schultz lamented, opining that in a truly creative setting, "the participants would decide what's appropriate for them to learn."<<

I'm still stumped as to why many “progressive” educators feel that solid instruction and deep, well-rounded content knowledge are things we do TO students rather than things we do for them.

Anonymous said...

The constructivist approach is about creativity for the TEACHERS.

I have always suspected this.


Independent George said...

Is there any skill in life that doesn't require mastery of fundamentals before advancing to the 'fun' advanced stage? Cooking, music, sports, knitting, poker, dog training... why would academics be different from learning any of these things?

SteveH said...

I've mentioned this before; my son's piano teacher once held his hand low and told him that he was trying to have too much fun down here. Then he raised his hand high and told him that if he worked really hard, he would have much more fun up here.

Look behind the talk of discovery and creativity and you will find low expectations.

LynnG said...

I've heard that the only jobs we can be sure of in the future are those that can't be done on the internet, i.e., you can't hammer in a nail over the phone. That may or may not turn out to be true, but assume for a moment that it is.

Just how creative do you want the guy digging your home's foundation to be? Wouldn't you want him/her to be able to do some basic math and measuring?

SteveH said...

"Long division, multiplication--"those are just algorithms, and a calculator can do them faster than we can. Most of the people here at this meeting don't think of themselves as good at math, and they don't think math is creative. [The constructivist approach] is a way to make math creative for many people who never thought of it that way."

Apparently, math has to come to meet them, not the other way around. They don't like math. They didn't do well in math. They have to change math. Wouldn't it help if they learned a little bit of math first? As Allison says, this is about them, not the students.

These are the people who are teaching teachers. These are the people who claim to understand methods for developing critical thinking.

le radical galoisien said...

She's into social contracts (another middle school creep)

Is this like social contract theory, e.g. of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, or are you referring to something else?

Redkudu said...

A social contract in the classroom looks something like this:

Anonymous said...


The thing you linked to looks a lot like what we used to call "the class rules." (e.g. keep your hands to yourselves) Is there a distinction here, or is this basically the same thing but with a different name?

Mark Roulo

Redkudu said...

With a social contract, the teacher does not design the class rules, the students do. When implemented well, as I think this PDF illustrates, it can work. What unfortunately happens is that it often requires a lot of preparation to set the guidelines for the students just in order to compose the social contract. One training I went to had us working on the social contract for a week. And teachers who don't implement it well are in for a hell of a time when students start taking the contract as their "rights" and twist it's meaning to their advantage.

In my experience, middle school students tend to take this more seriously than high schoolers. (One thing all the students solemnly agreed on in an 8th grade class I taught was that no student would hit the teacher. It was something of a tough group.) And middle schoolers I've seen will police one another more diligently than high school students, who don't want to call their peers out.

Redkudu said...

Argh - "its meaning" of course.

LynnG said...

I really wouldn't want to go into a class where we couldn't agree at the outset not to hit the teacher. My apologies for the triple negative; hope you get my drift.

Redkudu said...

Lynn -

Understood. These are the students I choose to teach, because the rewards are so rich. It often isn't until you walk into the classroom that these oddities - things you and I would take for granted - come up. Oddly enough, the very student who proposed that later shoved me hard enough to knock me down during an emotional episode outside the class - he was undiagnosed ED and we got him help for that.

I worry sometimes that due to the extreme examples we circulate as anecdotes - those of us who teach at-risk kids - leads to a stereotype, and that's not my intention. At-risk doesn't always mean violent or abusive. But it is those students who often make the biggest impression and, due to their all-around needs (which are often not being met) rob the class of learning time.

Lsquared said...

"Long division, multiplication--"those are just algorithms, and a calculator can do them faster than we can. Most of the people here at this meeting don't think of themselves as good at math, and they don't think math is creative. [The constructivist approach] is a way to make math creative for many people who never thought of it that way."

It's a good thing that most of these people aren't actually teaching math, since, from a societal perspective, it's really much more important to have people who are good at math thinking that math is creative.

Barry Garelick said...

In my math teaching methods class in ed school, after being presented some theories comparable to what has been written about above, and after some students questioned their validity, the teacher responded: "Math teaching in the traditional way hasn't been working, though." I.e., if the status quo isn't working then stop doubting what we're presenting. No one challenged her on her assumption that the traditional way hasn't been working. Out in the real world, when someone does challenge that assumption, they are told that they are used to the old way of doing things and maybe it worked for them but it doesn't work for all.

There's an answer for every question. Unfortunately too many people believe the answers.

LynnG said...

I wish one of them could explain how the "failed" methods of the past work so very well in Singapore.

SteveH said...

"...the 'failed' methods of the past work so very well in Singapore."

I know the answer. Their culture is different. We have a different "mix" of students. That's (basically) what the head of curriculum at my son's previous school told me.

I've been trying to get someone (anyone) to admit that their problem with Singapore Math is that it's too difficult, not that what they are doing is better. They lower expectations and then claim that it's better.

It's also ironic that the the teacher seems quite willing to be the sage on the stage. "... the traditional way hasn't been working, though." End of discussion.

le radical galoisien said...

Well sure the culture is definitely different.

But what administrators don't seem to get is that they have a direct influence over school environment, atmosphere and culture.

Singapore's school culture got that way because administrators, teachers and parents strove hard to forge an educational culture that would be productive.

Allison said...

The phrase "we have a mix of students" or a phrase that our culture is different, is a truism that is still a non sequitur: why does culture imply you can't teach students? It doesn't. Even the "we have many cultures in one room" doesn't imply that. Classrooms 100 years ago taught first-generation immigrants of different cultures without issue.

Until someone is willing to articulate why a different culture or a mix of students makes these things not work, it will continue to be a non sequitur.

Often, it's a kind of shorthand phrase that's a kind of codeword. The truth that is lurking in that phrase can't be said, because it would be a gamechanger.

Here are some possibilities of what is meant by "we have a mix of students":
1. some students aren't smart enough to learn even if they are taught by us
2. some students come from cultures that don't value education and and therefore can't learn even if taught by us
3. some students' home life is so impoverished that it's hopeless for us to try and teach them

The first implies a kind of IQ fatalism; the second implies a kind of racism/ethnocentricism, the third implies a kind of classism and heteronormativity that is unacceptable in a world of multicultural utopias, where all people are equally able, all cultures equally good. So no good unpacking any of those assumptions, as they are all taboo!

yet the obvious one,
4. we keep CREATING the "mix of students" ourselves by refusing to allow children to be sorted by current mastery level/ability and then teaching until mastery

somehow never gets articulated.

SteveH said...

I guess I don't like the claim that reform math is somehow better. Better for those at the lowest end of the academic scale? No, they claim that it's better all around. But even they know that it isn't true. Singapore Math forces them to confront this issue.

When the head of curriculum at my son's old private school talked about the "mix", she was admitting that Singapore Math (I lent her my copies.) would be too tough for many of the kids. I wanted to challenge this, but there was no process and I would have needed to get much more adversarial.

For most parents, this "niceness" line can't be crossed and parents can't afford to politely send their kids to another school. When our public schools held an open forum about long term educational goals, all basic assumptions were off the table. Everyone had to be nice and constructive. You're either part of their solution or you're part of the problem.

They KNOW that many parents have other ideas of education, but it's their turf. They won't even openly admit to this. They talk confidently about learning styles, authentic learning, and best practices.