kitchen table math, the sequel: Project

Friday, June 8, 2012


I attended a meeting today as an advocate for a student, something I've never done before. It was great. I think the outcome was very good --- I sure hope so.

One of the central issues was projects. The student cannot handle projects. Period. He is a SPED kid, and he can't handle projects. Can't handle projects is plainly stated on the IEP, the help on projects that will be provided is specified, etc., etc ... and the upshot is that his mother has spent the entire school year trying to find out whether there is a project due, what the project is, what the instructions are, where the instructions are, what the instructions mean, and on and on and on. She's been run ragged, and she's extremely stressed juggling middle-school projects and a full-time job (in a business with daily lay-offs and salary cuts and all the anxiety that entails).

On top of all this, the grading of projects is bizarrely harsh, so harsh that a student who has had a string of 100s on tests gets bumped down to a B or a C entirely on the basis of an F- or two on projects. Projects trump tests.

So, in the meeting, we went round and round on the question of projects. (I won't get into anything else because I don't want to give away identities.)

After traveling down a number of blind allies, I asked whether the student could just stop doing so many projects. Could we solve the problem that way? I said I didn't see how failing a project was contributing to his education; if he is failing projects then he isn't actually doing the projects, not really (leaving aside the issue of grade deflation, of course).

No one expected to hear that, and at first no one knew what to say other than "No."

When I persisted, the chair of the meeting explained to me that American schools are moving away from teachers standing at the front of the classroom and teaching content: today classes are interactive. Someone else said that the goal is for students to learn to work collaboratively, and another person said it's important for students to solve problems.

I said I didn't do projects when I was in school, I don't assign projects in my classes at the non-selective college where I teach, my husband doesn't assign projects in the selective college where he teaches, and I just wasn't seeing the value in XXXX being assigned projects he couldn't do and then receiving failing grades when he didn't do them.

The chair got hot under the collar. "You come in here and you question our philosophy ----- !"

We got past that, and continued to go round and round on the project issue .... and quite a bit later I asked a teacher in the room, who had taught in the high school, how many projects students actually do in grades 9-12, which is where XXXX is headed. It had suddenly occurred to me that the high school kids probably weren't doing nearly the number of projects the middle school kids are doing.

This turned out to be the case. The middle school kids do many projects; the high school kids do far fewer.

The chair explained that, in the high school, students have to pass Regents exams, so, unfortunately, teachers must spend a fair amount of time preparing students to pass the test.

The flipped classroom is going to sweep.

That's what I'm thinking at the moment.

Has Constructivism Increased Special Education Enrollment in Public Schools? By Nakonia (Niki) Hayes
Mathematics Education: Outwitted by Stupidity by Barry Garelick
Growth of Special Education Spending and Enrollment in New York since 2000-01


Catherine Johnson said...

I never got around to writing a post about the Salman Khan lecture at the so-called "Celebration of Teaching and Learning," and I'm going to have to do that. The man was treated like a rock star. There is HUGE enthusiasm for him --- and, it seems, for flipped classrooms.

The theme of his talk was that direct instruction is somewhat tedious for the teacher; you're repeating yourself over and over again.

When you record lectures and lessons on video, you can do much more enjoyable things in class. He stressed the 'pleasure' quotient, came back to it again and again.

It's not especially fun to teach the basics over and over again to student after student.

What's fun is to discuss deeper questions, go into depth, etc.

The flipped classroom, for Salman Khan, releases teachers and students from the drudgery of direct instruction in the fundamentals.

I'm wondering whether the problem with Khan (the 'problem' meaning the problematic aspect of Khan I can never quite put my finger on) is that he began his teaching life as a tutor --- an online tutor, to boot.

One on one teaching isn't particularly fun.

Classroom teaching IS fun, and I don't think he's ever experienced it.

Whole class teaching is fun, and it's completely different from one-on-one tutoring. He doesn't know that.

Catherine Johnson said...

Public schools, though, are going to use flipped classrooms to ramp up the amount of time students spend working in groups and teachers spend delivering one-on-one 'extra help.'

If they can.

Catherine Johnson said...

More tests, please.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad we're almost done.


Anonymous said...

Catherine, congrats on being brave! That's unfortunately IS the middle school mentality - to do many projects (and it IS mandated from above). I was lucky - I taught MS, but I taught regents class, so I did not follow "workshop model" and didn't do projects.
Now in HS I do not assign any projects and even in labs (if I can and have enough supplies)I try to get everyone to work individually.
But even in HS I see other teachers assign projects (even in math - oh, horror!). That tells me - either the grades need to be boosted, or the teacher is done teaching (like now, by the end of the year)


TerriW said...

Is it okay to not care whether a teacher thinks teaching a child the basics is "fun."

I don't care if the gal who cleans their teeth thinks it's fun.

I don't care if the gal teaching them how to swim thinks it's fun.

I don't care if the guy giving them an eye exam thinks it's fun.

As their parent, I just need the job done. And I'm generally paying good money to ensure it. Not high on my priority list? Whether the person I'm paying for the service is getting out of it.

Back in the olden days for me, before children, none of my employers were too worried about my fun factor. They did, however, care a lot about whether the servers were up. If I could have fun and the servers were up, great. But if my having fun got in the way of the servers uptime, it was time to show fun the door.

Kids aren't learning the basics. Time to show fun the door.

TerriW said...

Supposed to be a question mark on that first sentence. (Insert long diatribe about how horrible writing anything lengthy on an iPad is.)

Barry Garelick said...

the chair of the meeting explained to me that American schools are moving away from teachers standing at the front of the classroom and teaching content: today classes are interactive.

Abbreviated version: American schools are moving away from teachers teaching content.

Yes, I know. Use Khan. Flip the classroom. My response: Flip this!

ChemProf said...

I think "fun for the teacher" is an underestimated part of the problem. I ran into this a while back in my class at college. In lecture, we go over molecular geometry, but I know some students won't really get it until they see it in person. So we have a lab where students are supposed to build a series of molecules, draw pictures, etc. One year, suddenly, performance on this topic went down. I found out that the lab instructor had gotten tired of answering the same question eighty-seven times so had converted the lab to a group activity. But of course the students who hadn't gotten it in lecture just copied from the board in lab and still didn't get it.

Which reminds me, this year I need to remind the lab instructors that it isn't a group activity...

Crimson Wife said...

Why can't the special ed student be allowed to complete an alternative assignment more appropriate to his/her abilities? I know kids whose IEP's allow them to substitute videotaped oral reports for written papers because of dyslexia & dysgraphia. If the student is unable to complete the regular assignment because of the disability, then rather than failing him/her as a result, an alternative assignment should be given.

Glen said...

TerriW, if teachers prefer delegating the teaching part to Khan videos, they'll make themselves replaceable by small shell scripts, won't they? (Pressure sensor in seat triggers facial recognition routine on computer in front of each student, both taking attendance and starting up the appropriate Khan video....")

Of course, you still need the human touch, but you can outsource that. At the beginning of each class, "Miss Betty" and "Miss Veronica," from their "teaching center" in Bangalore, appear on a screen in front of the classroom in Northern California to chat with the kids, asking them how their weekends went and so on, calling each kid by name using the text floating over their little faces on the Bangalore monitors, courtesy of the facial recognition system at each seat....

Hmm. Then again, as dystopian as that was intended to sound, I can't help wondering: replace the Khan videos with Singapore Math lessons, replace the American teacher who will never be able to teach Sing Math with four "Miss Veronicas" in Bangalore who are trained to do it (and won't delegate to parents), divide the class into four small groups at different levels (8 kids + 1 Miss Veronica per group on a group video teleconference), all for what we currently pay.... Is that worse than what we have now?

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I'm going to double-down on my curmudgeon index and disagree with TWO comments today.

"One on one teaching isn't particularly fun." On the contrary, one-on-one teaching with a good student is delightful—much more fun than classroom teaching. One-on-one teaching with a poor student (as most tutoring is) is excruciating.

"I don't care if the gal teaching them how to swim thinks it's fun." I do. If the teacher hates teaching, students quickly realize it, and most come to hate the subject, the teacher, and the institution of learning. Teachers who are passionate about the material and who love it when their students develop facility with the subject are the teachers I want for my son.

I expect the same from all professionals—that they take pride in their work and consider it "fun" and not just a way to pay the bills. If a teacher regards teaching the basics as not fun, then they are either in the wrong profession or teaching to the wrong level of students.

Allison said...

No, Glen, It won't be worse. It'll be better. Funny, Terriw, but I knew a ton of employers who cared about the fun level of their employees. Webvan,, and a few others come to mind. The foosball tables, dogs and work, aeron chairs and the like were the same mentality. Salman Khan is from Silicon Valley, where work must be fun even if that drives your business into bankruptcy.

I already know a private school that charges $15k a year and uses Khan Academy--it's free! and it differentiates instruction for us!

When I told them that their parents might not like the school charging them $15k a year so they could outsource math to the same guy the parents could when homeschooling, they acted like they hadn't thought of that before.

Lots of teachers in the public schools want the flipped classroom because then it's NOT THEIR PROBLEM.

But there are various islands of insanity out there. I'm guessing the flipped classroom will sweep until about February, at which point, the most mind numbing kind of rote memorization test prep will enter, and not leave until May. That's what I see in the schools here that are below proficient--their solution is to drill and kill in the most braindead ways. I'm sure they will manage to do that AND the flipped classroom without anyone ever noticing the irony.

Anonymous said...

You know what's really not fun for the teacher? trying to get the material across when the model is supposed to be that the students somehow absorb it by talking to each other (!!!) and working on projects with each other (!!!). If you really care whether the students are learning what they need to learn, this is a very frustrating type of school to teach in.

Anonymous said...

As a teacher, I do not buy the flipped classroom model -- I think it's complete BS.

Yes, I do have to teach the same lesson several times a day. But I don't even like to use powerpoint that often. I think each class deserves to see the lesson unfold step-by-step in a way that is difficult to capture in a power-point. And as for the idea that I could just show a video of the lesson while serving as a "guide on the side" (a phrase that makes me retch) -- well that's a complete non-starter.

Here are some things that a live teacher can do WHILE LECTURING that a video can't:

Watch faces for comprehension or puzzlement
Ask questions to monitor understanding
Ask questions to lead to a discovery
Welcome interuptions and answer questions on the fly
Adjust pacing and emphahsis
Change content based on student interest or need
Hear suggestions FROM STUDENTS that lead to new connections and better understanding while including the students in that process
Establish a connection of shared responsibility -- it's my job to teach this stuff and your job to learn it. We have a relationship.

I could probably go on but really the above examples should be enough to make the point: anyone who thinks a video can replace a teacher has never been or never had an actual teacher. So I agree with the earlier poster -- keep your flippped classroom out of my flipping classroom.

Jen said...

I am still stuck on the idea that group or project work is more "fun" for the teacher. I always thought the teaching is the fun part as anon 3:42 describes -- you are getting instant feedback from the attention level, the faces, the questions, etc. You should be adjusting, tweaking, backtracking or skipping as needed. You're *working* -- both "performing"/delivering the lesson but also simultaneously evaluating in your head.

When you teach it more than once in a day, it's even better. You get to see which tweaks work (no need to backtrack, say) and which things might have been specific to the prior class rather than a problem with your planning (and the opposite, as well).

Watching kids do projects or group work, especially when I was instructed by the script not to reteach or remediate anyone, at all, during the work time -- just to note errors and misconceptions, IS dull. Though theoretically it's a good time to either do 1 to 1 remediation (if you're allowed) or to grade papers, etc.

Unknown said...

Would someone please explain to me how the flipped classroom will work for the kids who don't do their homework... which is about 25% of my class every day? What happens when they didn't watch the Kahn video last night?

Allison said...

It won't work. but then the school will get to blame the student, the family, or something else outside their control.

Jen, the people I see advocating Khan Academy are teachers themselves. they want it to be done outside their classroom. what does that leave them doing? the stuff they like--the enrichment. in a few schools that were well run, group work was done to keep various ability groups busy while attention was given to other small groups. i;m guessing that's the best possible way to have ability grouping survive these days.

Jen said...

I truly don't get it Allison! I suppose I can see it as a useful "extra." That is, if you didn't get it from today's class, please watch this Khan Academy video tonight before you try the homework.

There is an "ability grouping" system out there with good results. Though, as with all things, it's only as good as the ability of the school to implement it well. Good teachers, good principal, it's a good plan.

That's a really quick and dirty explanation, but you get the idea. When there aren't 5 classrooms, the groups get more compacted too -- for instance not splitting the "High" kids into two classes, but all in one.

One of the most interesting findings, at least to me, is that separating the "High" and "High Average" groups seems to have a great effect for...the High Average groups. Being "top of the heap" in a room seems to spur them on.

Also, whichever teacher gets the "Low" group is supposed to have a learning support or special ed. teacher in the room as a co-teacher, so that more explicit/in-depth differentiation can occur.

Allison said...

I meant that in well run public schools here, there's no way around full inclusion. So how do you make it "work" at all? even in k, the Students are several years apart in prior knowledge, so you can't teach the whole class. At best, you group 20 kids into groups of 3-5 and work with 1 set at a time. that means group work, designed to be done without teacher input for the kids who otherwise have no attention.

Allison said...

I can't say I even see khan as a useful extra for K-5. It's poor instructionally. in fact, it shows that education bandwagoners don't really believe anything they preach about conceptual understanding or constructivism--- because Khan's methods are so outrageously procedural. He don't ever Show a Picture of a square when completing a square.

SteveH said...

"The chair got hot under the collar. "You come in here and you question our philosophy ----- !""

I just started reading this thread and I'm stuck here. This defines the great divide I see between K-8 and high school. You should have said: "Why yes, I am. I'm glad you noticed!"

"The chair explained that, in the high school, students have to pass Regents exams, so, unfortunately, teachers must spend a fair amount of time preparing students to pass the test."


You should have asked what other information, knowledge, or skills makes it OK to flunk the Regents exams.

This is what I was talking about on the other thread, but you actually got the educator to come out and say it. Remember how I've talked about preemptive philosophical stikes by teachers? It's their turf. Even more than that, it's different than the reality of what goes on in high school.

SteveH said...

"When you record lectures and lessons on video, you can do much more enjoyable things in class. He stressed the 'pleasure' quotient, came back to it again and again."

Really now. What's most fun for teachers is what's best for students?

You don't get something for nothing. So instead of taking part of the class time to introduce new material, students are told to watch a video at home. Next, they come into class, break into groups, and do a hands-on, real-world project. Setting aside the question of whether the group work is useful, there will still be the need for homework sets in math. So, students will have to do both the homework and watch a video for the next section. Extra homework. What's likely to happen? They won't watch the video. Kids will come to class and break into groups where only a few will have watched the video. Even if they watch the video, students get no instant feedback to questions, so the groups might flounder until the teacher can circulate enough to get them on track.

Then, after the teacher checks the homework and sees where the problem areas are, what does she/he do in class to fix those problems?

So Khan did something that happened to strike a chord. (I'll bet he was quite surprised.) Now he is running with it as if that was what he planned all along.

SteveH said...

BTW, it clearly shows that educators really don't mind direct instruction as long as someone else is doing it. They send notes home telling us parents to work on math facts, but never mention that it has to be done in groups or indirectly.

They really have to stop calling themselves teachers.

Amy P said...

"Then, after the teacher checks the homework and sees where the problem areas are, what does she/he do in class to fix those problems?"

That is a very good question. Teach it again? But that's not the plan, at all.

Traditionally, it's been very normal to assign home reading from the textbook so that students will be prepared for the new topic when it appears in class the next day. Is Khan maybe just a sexy version of that traditional textbook reading? But then there's the problem of the "flipped classroom" talk. The traditional order is 1) reading at home 2) teacher presentation of some kind 3) exercises (probably both in school and at home). As I understand this, the "flipped classroom" proposes to eliminate step #2, which provides some redundancy to the system in case kids didn't read, didn't understand, whatever.

So, "flipping," is really a euphemism here if what is actually happening is that we are skipping the middle instructional step. I suspect that what will happen is that bad teachers will happily comply, while good teachers will continue to surreptitiously instruct.

ClassicsMom said...

I see the flipped classroom as possibly a way to ensure more direct instruction and more content which to me is a very good thing. I am not concerned about fun for teachers and I detest group projects.

The flipped classrooms would allow students to complete their math (or any other subject) practice and homework problems in the classroom with the teacher present for any help needed. It would also allow those who need to view instructional videos repeated the time to do so on their own time instead of class time.

Of course, I would not want to see the flipped classroom as way for more or any group instruction which I think is mostly a waste of time. I believe in individual mastery.

Lastly, I love Khan Academy. It is great for my son and provides tons of direct instruction:)

ClassicsMom said...

I forgot to add that we homeschool currently and use Khan as a supplement:)

momof4 said...

Fortunately, my kids finished school before the least academic, fuzziest and silly ideas really took over the schools. However, in recent years, I have begun to wonder if the whole ES establishment hasn't adopted the "playing school" scenario that many ES teachers did when they were kids; lots of arts and crafts, lots of "fun" games etc. and no academic content. ES should be all about building a solid foundation across all of the academic areas but what I'm seeing is a deliberate move away from this.

I also second the comment that the teachers/schools have no problem with direct instruction, as long as they are not made to do it. Some high schools are still serious about content and mastery, and some middle schools, although the latter are more infected with the fuzzy ES mindset and behavior.

ClassicsMom said...

I concur that many elementary schools have a fuzzy mindset and fuzzy curricula:( Unfortunately, I think this fuzziness is all too pervasive in American schools, even the so-called good schools, which is truly a disservice to our children. I truly believe direct instruction can be done in a refreshing way such as Story of the World with summaries ala the Well Trained Mind and Saxon or Singapore Math. It is astonishing to me when I hear of schools where spelling, grammar, cursive, world history, and mastering the math facts and operations are optional:( I believe that children can be given a very strong foundation in all of the above and much more without brow beating them and without group projects.

My son has far surpassed the little content knowledge I was given in my younger days without any brow beating.

Catherine Johnson said...

Susan wrote: "I'm so glad we're almost done."


I'm going out with a bang. (Gotta talk!)

Catherine Johnson said...

Would someone please explain to me how the flipped classroom will work for the kids who don't do their homework

That's easy!

Mom and Dad (or Mom and Dad and Tutor) will sit with their children and watch it with them.

Then, next day in class, the teacher will provide one-on-one Extra Help while the kids who did manage to watch and absorb the video do extensions and enrichment and problem solving in groups.

Catherine Johnson said...

Ed Next has a fabulous new article out on the research showing lectures are superior to problem solving and group work.

(Will get it posted.)

One especially interesting factoid: the more capable students benefited **more** from lecture than did less capable students.

Catherine Johnson said...

People really have no idea what lectures actually are --- and I don't think I can explain it myself.

A lecture isn't a video, first and foremost.

In a lecture, the lecturer is getting all kinds of nonverbal and verbal feedback as he goes along -- and he's adjusting what he's saying -- and people raise their hands and ask questions and interject ....

A taped lecture isn't a lecture.

In all likelihood a taped mini-lesson isn't a mini-lesson, either.

Jean said...

I find that to be very true. Much as I like listening to lectures on audio or video at home, since I can't go take a course, it's not the same thing at all. And although I like working through Khan Academy as a math review, I prefer to get my math whiz husband to explain things I don't remember well rather than watching the videos.

Jen said...

*One especially interesting factoid: the more capable students benefited **more** from lecture than did less capable students.*

I'm sure this is true for taped lectures as well. Students need to learn to pay attention -- some kids come to school doing that, at least on a K level, other kids do not. That is, they literally need to be taught how to be in a classroom with other students, how to listen to an adult to gain information, etc.

I hate taped lectures, personally. I can do it, but the effort I have to expend to pay attention to a person talking on a screen is far greater than the effort to listen to a real live person. The effort has a cost.

For poorer students, that effort or self control or whatever you want to call it, is not long enough to allow for learning. They "tune out" or often, never tune in fully. It's like listening to a static-y radio -- if you don't really want to hear that song, you just tune it out.