kitchen table math, the sequel: Look it up

Friday, March 30, 2012

Look it up

Have just this moment realized I forgot to post an account of my exchange with the WNET staffer at the "Celebration."

Unfortunately, I'm fresh out of energy.

Boiled down, the encounter began with the WNET person saying Salman Khan should not be "allowed" to teach in New York schools because "he's 19th century."

It ended with the WNET person saying there's no reason for people to memorize things becauseand here she held her cell phone aloft"I can look things up on my phone."

When I said, "Can you look up calculus on your phone?" she made a face.


Anne Dwyer said...

Of course we all have to memorize things. That's what content knowledge is. If you don't have any content knowledge, even if you look something up, you won't understand it.

And let's not talk about students learning to work in groups because that's what they will do in the workplace.

You are in a group at work to accomplish something. And you are part of the group because of your content knowledge. In other words, you bring value to the group based on your expertise which is....wait for it....content knowledge. Things you know by heart (memorized) or things you can look up and understand because you have so much memorized knowledge.

Amy P said...

I'm hoping the ER people aren't just looking stuff up on their phones.

LynnG said...

I wish I could have an educator shadow me for a week and see what collaboration actually looks like in the workplace.

Anonymous said...

Amy P, LOL!!! and even when lives are not at stake, in how many jobs do you get to stop and look everything up, assuming you even know what to look up? what a farce. Even in hobbies, you get the most satisfaction when you have the info inside your head, ready to go. I love to identify trees and notice which environments they can be found in. I can identify them with leaves on, and even in the wintertime. I can identify them by their shape from far away. I can identify them by their smell at night. There's no way I'm going out in the field with a phone, hoping to figure out which way is up.

Instructivist said...

The widespread fallacy so beloved by educationists and assorted nitwits is confusion between information and knowledge. You can look up information (e.g. the most populous countries). On the other hand, knowledge requires a protracted struggle to acquire a body of knowledge and understanding (e.g. I cannot become an ad hoc chemist overnight by hauling around a gadget).

I always suspected that Khan’s approach of imparting knowledge and explaining things would not sit well with those who think knowledge is magically “constructed” out of thin air. And, indeed, there are rumblings of discontent in educationist ranks.

City Journal has a major article on the Khan phenomenon here:

There’s another reason that Khan Academy will disturb the education establishment. For all Khan’s reliance on technology, his pedagogical approach—lectures and problem sets that drill kids on skills—is a very traditional one. But this approach has fallen out of favor in the pedagogical debate on how children learn. The fashionable theory in today’s schools of education—constructivism—maintains that students construct their own knowledge from their experiences; lectures and drills are therefore frowned upon. And so, as Gates’s money and star power enable Khan to scale up his program so that more schools can use it, opposition is mounting. Sylvia Martinez, the president of a nonprofit called Generation YES and a critic of Khan’s approach, worries that “just because you can speed up an assembly line doesn’t prove you’re doing it better.” Children learn best when they are engaged “in things that are important to them.”

Catherine Johnson said...


I MUST become a believer in synchronicity and all of that!

I was just today thinking of using the word "instructivist" in a Parents Forum op ed .... and thinking of you and your blog!

Catherine Johnson said...

I'm hoping the ER people aren't just looking stuff up on their phones.

I wish I'd thought of that.

Catherine Johnson said...

The widespread fallacy so beloved by educationists and assorted nitwits is confusion between information and knowledge.

MUST get this up front.

Yes, that's it exactly.

There is a complete and total conflating of info with knowledge.

Catherine Johnson said...

BUT --- you're wrong about Khan ---- the ed world LOVE LOVES LOVES Salman Khan. He is hot! hot! hot! (not going to take the time to find that post right now)

He was the keynote at the conference & was given the rock star treatment

So many people wanted to attend his workshop that the hotel posted a guard outside the room to turn people away.

Catherine Johnson said...

Must get that post up, too.

Catherine Johnson said...

The WNET staffer wasn't a teacher. She was a PBS person whose children had attended P.S. 87 (the school Sol Stern wrote about).

She said her children had spent 6 weeks on the Salem witch trials.

Catherine Johnson said...

She also made a face when I brought up E.D. Hirsch.

"Core knowledge schools are terrible," she said. (I'm writing from memory -- I don't have notes.) "Children have to memorize one little thing and then memorize another little thing and then memorize another little thing."

She explicitly rejected the notion of breaking content down to manageable -- and memorable -- size.

Content wasn't broken down at P.S. 87; it was approached whole. (She didn't use the word 'whole.')

She said, too, that her children know a lot: when they watch television her children are online the whole time looking up information.

Chris's reaction: "They're on Facebook."

Catherine Johnson said...

in how many jobs do you get to stop and look everything up, assuming you even know what to look up?

Well that's the thing.

Setting aside everything we know about cognitive science and working memory, etc.....there is NO TIME to look up EVERY SINGLE THING YOU NEED TO KNOW TO DO YOUR JOB.

Or to do your hobby, for pete's sake.

Amy P said...

There's an old practical joke where several young medical students in surgical attire burst into a bookstore, grab a copy of Gray's Anatomy, and start arguing loudly over it.

My husband suggests updating the joke by having them rush out of the hospital and stand outside with cell phones, desperately trying to get a good signal to look at Wikipedia.

Bostonian said...

With a phone that can access the Internet, you can look up integrals and derivatives of expressions at the
Mathematica Online Integrator
. The existence of such a tool decreases the importance of knowing various integration "tricks" (substituting variable, integration by parts) relative to the ability to formulate a problem so that calculus can be applied to it. Googling cannot do that.

Anonymous said...

Gasstationwithoutpumps again avoiding the blogger refusal to admit wordpress ids (why they have the OpenID radio button if they don't plan to use it is beyond me).

Using Mathematica or Wolfram Alpha to do integration does not solve all first-year calculus problems. My son recently had a differential-equation problem that Wolfram Alpha could "solve", but it made a terrible mess. The correct solution involved changing from Cartesian coordinates (which the differential equation was in) to polar coordinates, where the solution had a simple expression.

Attempting to do the conversion blindly in Wolfram Alpha did not help—it was important to recognize some special properties of the solution along the way.

Bostonian said...

Catherine mentioned some criticism of Core Knowledge. Nonfiction Curriculum Enhanced Reading Skills is a recent NYT article supporting it:

'Children in New York City who learned to read using an experimental curriculum that emphasized nonfiction texts outperformed those at other schools that used methods that have been encouraged since the Bloomberg administration’s early days, according to a new study to be released Monday.

For three years, a pilot program tracked the reading ability of approximately 1,000 students at 20 New York City schools, following them from kindergarten through second grade. Half of the schools adopted a curriculum designed by the education theorist E. D. Hirsch Jr.’s Core Knowledge Foundation. The other 10 used a variety of methods, but most fell under the definition of “balanced literacy,” an approach that was spread citywide by former Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, beginning in 2003.

The study found that second graders who were taught to read using the Core Knowledge program scored significantly higher on reading comprehension tests than did those in the comparison schools.

It also tested children on their social studies and science knowledge, and again found that the Core Knowledge pupils came out ahead. Citywide, budget cuts and the drive to increase scores on the state reading and math exams have led many elementary and middle schools to whittle down their social studies and science instruction.'

SteveH said...

"...the ed world LOVE LOVES LOVES Salman Khan."

Why is that? Is it because he offers the idea of flipping the classroom? Does it offer a way to implement differentiated instruction in a full inclusion environment? That would go along with my theory about how educators don't have a lot against direct instruction as long as someone else is doing the job. Educators weren't sending notes home to me telling me not to directly instruct my son. In fact, they told us parents to work (directly, I assume) on math facts.

It's also different in high school. My son's classes are all direct instruction. They don't break into groups to study verb tenses in Spanish. His history teacher loves(!) to lecture. His US Lit teacher also feels like he has many important things to directly tell his students. Pre-calculus is all about introducing new material because there is not enough time in class to let the students do it themselves. That's what homework is for.

Allison said...

i'm seeing the same thing as Catherine: schools love khan.

khan isnt going to teach k-8 kids anything, but schools love it anyway.

a) now they think they don't have to spend money on textbooks for elementary kids (first hand have heard that directly from a curriculum director)

b) now their teachers don't need to know how to do the math, khan will do it for them. heard that directly from an instructional coach who champions Teach Like a Champion)

i know 2 other elementary teachers who love it because now they can do fun Terc things.

i only know one person who is anti khan here in the establishment. her very sane complaint: the man teaches completing the square without even drawing a square. it's nothing but computational and procedural fluency for him. it's the opposite of actual instruction, but now schools will use it and instruct even less.

Instructivist said...

Hi Catherine,

Thanks for the kind words.

Regarding enthusiasm for Khan, there may be a split between teachers in the field and ed school/organizational theorists, what I call educationists.

Just came across this curious item on CNN:

New York (CNN) – Divorce. Dinosaurs, Birthdays. Religion. Halloween. Christmas. Television. These are a few of the 50-plus words and references the New York City Department of Education is hoping to ban from the city’s standardized tests.

Richard I said...

And from the UK ....

Children no longer need facts because they can look them up on smartphone, claim teachers

Allison said...

Someone who knows things is a subject matter expert.

Someone who knows how to look things up is a reference librarian.

My mother is a retired reference librarian. It's an impressive skill, and she despises Google and the folks who think that Google can replace real reference knowledge (sorry mom, but that ship has sailed), but she never mistook skill for content knowledge. She was also a historian. There, she knew stuff.

momof4 said...

Steve H: I think you hit the nail on the head; teachers don't mind direct instruction as long as they don't have to do it.

Allison: You're right about good reference librarians - and libraries. I remember hanging out in two huge, out-of-state college libraries, during campus visits, while my son researched the Irish Penal Laws for his AP Euro term paper. Before Google and the internet...

Catherine Johnson said...

Someone who knows things is a subject matter expert.

Someone who knows how to look things up is a reference librarian.

Oh my gosh, Allison!



Knowing how to look things up is a major 'skill' & 'body of knowledge....'

btw, I am -- (I'm about to say something boastful) -- fantastically good at ... looking things up, I guess.

I never know what to call this skill; I don't think it's the same thing as the skill and knowledge base a reference librarian has.

In fact, I'm pretty sure it's not.

Over the years, as a nonfiction writer writing about subjects I'm not expert in, I've developed some kind of ability to find what I need -- which involves deciphering the contours of a field, its questions and disputes as well as its givens ----

For instance, I am **very** good at figuring out what books to buy simply by reading the Amazon carousels, which I do frequently and obsessively. There are certain carousels I've read so many times I've practically got them memorized.

I think I probably developed this skill/knowledge base 'associatively,' in the way one learns that where there's smoke, there's fire.

In any event, regardless of what this particular skill consists of, it is **not** natural; it is **not** something a person with a cell phone can duplicate.

I don't just know how to 'look things up'; I know how to figure out what words to use to 'look things up' and what things, once I've looked them up, to consider & what things to ignore.

My 'bets' - and I really am placing bets, since I don't know what I don't know - have turned out to be correct time and again.

Catherine Johnson said...

I think you hit the nail on the head; teachers don't mind direct instruction as long as they don't have to do it.

I'm going to guess this is one of those Everyone Is a Closet Instructivist (& Everyone is a Closet Constructivist) things I mentioned on another thread. (Specifically: E.D. Hirsch says that America was born in the Enlightenment and bred in the Romantic era, and I believe that virtually all of us harbor deep beliefs from both.)

Of course, that observation translates directly to: the education establishment doesn't mind direct instruction as long as the 'dirty work' is done out of sight, in the home.

Or in special ed.

momof4 said...

I think a not-insignificant number of ES teachers loved playing school as kids and have never really gone beyond that; lots of group stuff, lots of arts and crafts, lots of touchy-feely stuff and not much content or explicit instruction.

Catherine Johnson said...

Love it!

Must get my Salman Khan post up.

"Fun" was the focus: fun was close to his central argument. Khan Academy offloads the non-fun stuff to computers.

SteveH said...

Fun is slow, and that's no fun for learning. My son would rather save the time for things that are really fun.

My son gets annoyed if there is something he has to learn and the teacher (which is me at times) doesn't get to the point. When I taught him algebra and geometry in 7th and 8th grades, he felt comfortable enough to tell me this many times. Something to the effect of "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got it. what's next?"

Catherine Johnson said...

As I recall (notes lost), Salman Khan first tutored his niece, then was asked to tutor a bunch of other young relatives over the internet. I **think** he said that their 'attendance' online was spotty, and he hit on the idea of simply recording his lessons so he wouldn't have to keep repeating himself over and over. (Again, my notes disappeared, so take this with a grain of salt.)

He definitely said, repeatedly, that when you put the basic lessons on tape, you can then do the fun stuff in person.

Strong emphasis on the pleasure one takes in 'discussing' things with students or working on problems together, etc.

Drudgery done by machines; fun stuff done by humans.

Of course, that makes sense when you're talking about washing dishes.

Teaching math is not washing dishes.

Books have already been invented, and the Khan videos don't improve on books. I think the videos are actually a step back from books in terms of usability.

Anonymous said...

Those who think they are pretty good at search might like the SearchReSearch blog

here, giving up on blogger ever fixing their refusal to accept comments from wordpress ids—I think it is a deliberate anti-competitive "feature")

palisadesk said...

Funny, I haven’t seen anything like the Khan-o-mania that Allison and Catherine have encountered. Perhaps the absence of this is related to the generally much more instructionally-focused ambience that has taken place over the last decade and more. Teacher-directed instruction is the norm, “fun stuff” is not area of emphasis (btw children will often describe a challenging learning activity as “fun” if they are engaged, successful and getting useful interactive feedback about their performance). I don’t see much “art work” or “group work” activities in core subjects. The spiral approach in math has been replaced by an emphasis on discrete steps, resembling a ladder, not a spiral. It’s true that the topics spiral around again – for example, third graders are introduced to equivalent fractions in a concrete way but not expected to convert unlike fractions to like fractions. The next time the topic of equivalent fractions comes around, students are expected to move on to the next step.

So where does Khan fit in? I was at a meeting recently of instructional reps for schools in my zone and we discussed a number of approaches, resources etc. Khan Academy came up, and I found all who contributed had similar reactions to mine:
(1) The videos can be very helpful in individual cases. For them to be effective, the student has to be motivated enough to watch them, stop and replay when confused, attempt the model problems independently, etc.
(2) The quality is highly variable.
(3) “Flipping the classroom” is ridiculous in situations where many or most of the students do not have internet access. My last school had, according to a district survey, fewer than 10% of families with internet access at home. So much for online learning outside of school hours.
(4) We have abundant video resources already. The Khan videos are not as good as the ones from Math-U-See, Math Mastery or the old DI laserdiscs, for that matter.
(5) The Khan videos aren’t really structured for classroom use. Some other math videos allow for pausing the video, engaging the students, providing feedback etc. and then carrying on with the next step.
(6) The most likely niche for the Khan videos is in providing support to included special education students, but even here they are limited by the fact they are not interactive. However, they can provide the repetition many students need.
(7) Interactive software applications have better features and instructional design than the Khan videos. Of course, they are not free, but site licenses or district-wide purchases often make them affordable.

I’ve had students use the Khan videos to help them with long division, multiplication of decimals, and several other topics, but I found I had to provide the descriptive feedback and interaction missing from the videos. The students would not have mastered those skills from the Khan videos alone.

palisadesk said...

Gasstationwithoutpumps -- why don't you comment on Blogger using the Name/URL box instead of Open ID? That should work. At least you won't come up as "anonymous."

I've had a similar problem on Wordpress blogs, maybe they are incompatible.

Catherine Johnson said...

Interactive software applications have better features and instructional design than the Khan videos.


The Khan videos remind me of the old Kaypro computers -- weren't they the first cheap desktop computers people could buy? (Or one of the first.)

lgm said...

Khan seems to fit in where ever the student needs a resource, be that b/c he has a poor teacher, no textbook, poor classroom. situation, whatever.

SteveH said...

"Kaypro computers"

Yes, Kaypro tried to compete with Osborne. It seems like ancient history. Remember the TRASH-80, as it was fondly called? My brother built a Heathkit H8 that I still have. I also have an original one floppy drive IBM-PC. I think I paid $4K for it. A friend of mine and I looked into opening a ComputerLand franchise in the early 80's. I'm glad we didn't have the money. Then there was Compaq which ended being bought by Dell and then HP.

I suspect that many people working on intelligent/adaptive educational software are surprised/pissed off at the Khan videos. Why not combine the teaching and the mastery into one computer program? You teach, you practice, and you can't go on until you reach mastery. Drill and kill? It's better than pretend and hope. The problem with so many educational programs my son had when he was little was that they were not that much fun and it took a long time to cover very little material.

When educators talk of watching videos at home, I assume that this is on top of the other homework the students have to do. I'm not sure what they are flipping. They are adding more work at home just so that they can continue to do the fun stuff at school.

By the way, don't they believe that direct instruction is fundamentally wrong? Apparently it isn't. What model do teachers use when they tutor kids on the side and charge $75 per hour?