kitchen table math, the sequel: academic skills or academic content?

Friday, May 6, 2011

academic skills or academic content?

In the new Education Week, word that the AVID program, which apparently teaches -- or attempts to teach -- critical thinking has not panned out in Chicago:
In a report set for release in the fall and previewed at the American Educational Research Association convention in New Orleans in April, researchers analyzed how AVID, a study-skills intervention for middle-achieving students, played out in 14 Chicago high schools. They found AVID participants in 9th grade gained little advantage that year over peers not taking part in the program, and remained off track for graduation and college.


Doug Rohrer, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, found the CCSR study more rigorous than prior AVID research.

In a September 2010 analysis, the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse found only one of 66 AVID studies met its quality standards. Based on that study, the clearinghouse found AVID had “no discernible effects on adolescent literacy.”


“The critical question in my mind,” Mr. Rohrer continued, “is whether AVID is better than requiring students to go to another class, such as an extra dose of math or writing. Learning how to take notes is a fine strategy, but it might not help you in Algebra 2 if you haven’t learned Algebra 1.”
You can't think critically about algebra if you don't know algebra.

Here is Daniel Willingham on the subject (pdf file):
After more than 20 years of lamentation, exhortation, and little improvement, maybe it’s time to ask a fundamental question: Can critical thinking actually be taught? Decades of cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge).

Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?
American Educator
Summer 2007


Bonnie said...

You really need both. I would guess that students who can't take notes have a lot of trouble learning content.

I have college students who have absolutely no inkling of study skills. They show up without paper, without anything to write with, and without having ever purchased the textbook. If it isn't on my Powerpoint slides (which *must* be distributed via Blackboard) then to them, it doesn't exist). I would say that about 50% of my freshmem in the introductory computer science courses have serious trouble with study skills. And guess what - that is the 50% that flunks (and yes, that is about our flunk rate for intro to CS).

So, honestly, I can't teach them the content if they can't take notes or be bothered to open a textbook. I wish someone would teach them those skills before they get to college, because we don't really have time in a 14 to 15 week semester. But I may have to back down and do a lecture on "how to remember your pencil for class" or some such.

Catherine Johnson said...

Study skills are different from critical thinking 'skills.'

There really is no such animal as a critical thinking 'skill' separate from the content you would think about.

That's why courses like the "Global Perspectives" class I visited are so superficial -- and so **not** an example of analysis or critical thinking.

It's not possible to recognize bias when you know nothing about a the subject you're looking for bias in.

btw, one of my tactics in approaching a field I know very little about is to look for the conflict, not the bias.

What points do experts and specialists disagree on?

That's a reasonably workable shortcut to figuring out a field for the purposes of nonfiction writing.

I never really look for 'bias' because even after I've familiarized myself with a field, I still don't have any confidence that I can spot bias as opposed to 'perspective' or the camp a particular specialist belongs to.

So after I determine the conflicts and points of contention, I start to categorize experts as belonging to one perspective or another, which is helpful.

Anonymous said...

I always thought taking notes was over-rated, especially for science/math classes. Calculus is calculus. Physics is physics.

I've known people who've taken various political science and other humanities classes who told me it was essential to take notes. But those were classes in which you were expected to do little more than regurgitate the professor's opinion back to him. I hardly consider a class like that worth taking.

I've also had classes where the professor gave away the solutions to the problems on the next open-notes test in lecture, and it was claimed as proof of the necessity of taking notes in general. I don't buy it, especially since people simply blindly copied material in class and then copied it right back on the exam. Blindly.

During my engineering and computer science classes I've known some meticulous note-takers and they were far from the best students. Although their notes were meticulous, they were often completely unable to summarize the lecture which they had just attended, and had to refer to their notes. In addition, it was the note-takers, in my experience, who refused to crack open books, or use other books on the topic as reference material seeing their notes as the only "truth" on the subject matter.

I remember tutoring students in math and a calculus student walked in telling me she couldn't do her homework because she missed the lecture in which some theorem was discussed, so she had to find someone from whom to copy the notes. I suggested that she look in her book which was in pristine condition and sitting under her nose. She said something like "Oh, it won't be in there". I opened the book to the index, and found it immediately. She was shocked. A calculus theorem in a calculus book. Who wudda thunk. I think that pushing note-taking helps create/reinforce notions like this.

I had one electrical engineering class in which the professor wrote notes, verbatim, from the textbook, and then put them on the board. Students, with textbook open, squinted to read from the board exactly what was in their book, and commit it to paper.

Before you dismiss me, I'd like to point out that I gladly took notes when material was not in the textbook. For example, I was taking a numerical analysis course in which the professor went over proofs which the textbook did not contain.

The idea that every student should write down everything in every lecture is an idea that dates back to the days before Gutenberg.

Bonnie said...

"Before you dismiss me, I'd like to point out that I gladly took notes when material was not in the textbook. "

I would seriously hope the professor is adding material that is not in the textbook. Otherwise, he/she is not doing a good job. Our CS books are pretty terse, and assume a good knowledge of vocabulary. In lecture, I add lots of examples to illustrate the ideas, and I also teach them the missing vocabulary. For example, my students don't know words like "iterate" or "concatenate", which tend to be used without explanation by the textbooks. I explain the concepts more completely. For example there are a lot of "looping through array" algorithms that look more or less the same. The book presents 3, and doesn't explain that they all look more or less the same - they expect the students to infer that. But the students can't because they are being hit with too many concepts at once. So I show them at least 10 more of these related algorithms, and then show them the framework. I want them to know that any time they are hit with a problem that requires an action to be performed repeatedly on each element of an array, the solution is going to follow a certain pattern. If my students aren't taking notes, and also downloading my code examples, they are toast.

Anonymous said...

(from a different Anonymous) -- humanities and social science classes above the introductory level usually depend far more on original and secondary sources than on textbooks. What the professor is doing during lectures is sketching out a framework that provides a platform for understanding those sources. The professor doesn't try to convey all the facts, but rather her or his interpretation of trends, themes, etc. Taking notes is important for retaining the elements of the interpretation, which will not be found elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

This is the first "Anonymous".

Regarding what I said about the poly sci classes: this was conveyed to me by a friend who was majoring in poly sci. He explicitly told me it was nothing more than the disconnected opinions of self-important professors. This friend went on to Harvard Law School and is now a partner in some law firm.

@Bonnie. I apparently went to college at a time when we seemed prepared to actually be there, so don't remember needing "scaffolding" to understand textbooks. May I suggest that what you are observing is due to the general dumbing-down of high school and the insistence that everyone go to college instead of the generic lack of note-taking skills.

Anonymous said...


Do you think no one has taught them to take notes? And to bring a pencil? I'm a high school teacher and I can tell you that this is nothing that needs to be "taught". It needs to be said, one time, in elementary school: come to class prepared to learn. And it IS said, and it is written on posters, placed all over the room. So students who arrives in your class without these things are not exhibiting some gap in their prior education. They are exhibiting willful indifference -- an indifference that correlates with other predictable behaviors leading them to be among the failing 50%.

MagisterGreen said...

Poor study skills is only symptomatic of the larger issues, which revolve around being unprepared in general for the content. Learning "how to take notes" isn't going to do much for the child in algebra who never learned arithmetic. To focus on note-taking "skills" is to focus on things exactly backwards; students who have a broad depth of knowledge are going to be more adept at note taking because they have a framework for discerning what is and is not important. Whether that knowledge is from prior experience or even having just purchased and read the textbook doesn't matter. But you cannot teach "note-taking" to someone who cannot discern what is and is not worthy of being noted.

And I would agree with (first) Anon that what Bonnie and others at university level are witnessing is largely due to the dumbing down of high school expectations which is arising from middle and elementary school laxity regarding how we treat and what we expect from children. Giving a child a chance to have an "authentic" learning experience trumps the oh-so-antiquarian practices of requiring them to bring pencil, notebook, and to sit quietly at their desk when teacher is talking.

Anonymous said...

First Anonymous here.

I'd like to mention that I was a career-switcher hs teacher for a few years, so I was shocked by the dumbing down that I saw.

As a student teacher I was told that we need to "teach" the students the value of hard work. How were we to do this? By telling them, or their parents, or by somehow punishing them. But what we demonstrated to students was exactly opposite. We showed them that to "succeed", they needed to do absolutely nothing, and that if they failed to succeed it would be the teacher's butt roasting over the coals. A little bit of work would result in 4.0 averages.

This is how we learned 'em.

So, yes, there may be signs in high schools telling everyone to come to class prepared, but if a kid doesn't it's someone else's problem, and the kid will eventually "succeed". And he knows it.

Bonnie said...

Agreed that the problem is that the students are generally indifferent. I do think it goes back to K12. My students are genuinely shocked when they are among the flunkees. They seem to have no idea that they COULD flunk. The problem is lack of consequences back in K12. Unfortunately, the same pressures are hitting us. Parents don't want to send their kids to colleges where they will flunk, or where their kids might have to work too hard. Administrators don't want to see 50% flunk rates because they know the parents will vote with their feet. Higher ed is dumbing down all over the place, except maybe in those few ultra selective colleges where all of the students are very bright and motivated.

If you are ever interested to know what things are really like in higher ed, go to the Chronicle of Higher Education's website and read the faculty forums, especially the In The Classroom forum.

Catherine Johnson said...

We showed them that to "succeed", they needed to do absolutely nothing, and that if they failed to succeed it would be the teacher's butt roasting over the coals. A little bit of work would result in 4.0 averages.

Hi anonymous - what kind of school were you in?

How did kids get 4.0s without doing anything?

And how did the teachers get in trouble if the kids weren't getting 4.0s?

(I'm curious - VERY curious - not challenging. Your description is so different from what I've seen here, but it's similar to what I'm hearing from a friend teaching in Yonkers.)

Catherine Johnson said...

Administrators don't want to see 50% flunk rates because they know the parents will vote with their feet.

My experience, in the college where I've begun teaching as an adjunct, is exactly the opposite.

Catherine Johnson said...

To focus on note-taking "skills" is to focus on things exactly backwards; students who have a broad depth of knowledge are going to be more adept at note taking because they have a framework for discerning what is and is not important.


The same principle holds for students in the Global Perspectives course "looking for bias." They had no means of discerning bias, so they were saying things like, "This is an Israeli newspaper, so it might be biased against Arabs." (They were talking about the liberal newspaper Haaretz. And, yes, a liberal Israeli paper might be biased against Arabs, but the students had no idea that Haaretz is a liberal paper.)

Anonymous said...

I taught at an average school in Virginia. Since every kid was expected to "succeed", ie pass, and the laziest/dumbest was guaranteed 60% or the teacher was accused of not teaching, it made getting above 90% pretty easy for about a quarter of the class.

I sometimes got complaints from kids who got a 'B' and I was told that I had "ruined" a perfect A average. I was surprised, because most of these kids were nothing special, either in the talent or the effort department.

Bonnie said...

My university spends a lot of time analyzing retention rates by major and then reporting them. This definitely leads to pressure to "retain".