kitchen table math, the sequel: A monkey in the multiverse

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A monkey in the multiverse

In the Times today:
“My goal is to do for these kids what I do with my own children,” the teacher, Susana Rojas, tells me. “It’s all about exposure to concepts — wide, narrow, long, short. I bring in breads from different countries. ‘Let’s do a pie chart showing which one you liked the best.’ I don’t ask them to memorize 1, 2, 3 — I could teach a monkey to count.”
The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools | By DAVID L. KIRP | Published: February 9, 2013
OK, yes, you can teach a monkey to "memorize 1,2,3":
Nieder and his colleagues spent about nine months training and testing two rhesus monkeys. The monkeys looked at a computer screen, which displayed from one to five dots.
Evidence Adds Up That Monkeys Can Count
Seeing as how it's a simple matter, requiring a mere 9 months, to teach a monkey to count, there is obviously no reason to teach a child to count. Not when you can spend that learning-to-count time teaching concepts like "When I put all the ingredients in [the food processor], what will happen?” or "Describe the smell of an onion, strong or light" or “Room 210 is a pie...and each of us is a slice of that pie.”

Meanwhile, over at themoneyillusion, Scott Sumner has posted this passage by physicist Eliezar Yudkowsky re: the multiverse:
So let me state then, very clearly, on behalf of any and all physicists out there who dare not say it themselves: Many-worlds wins outright given our current state of evidence. There is no more reason to postulate a single Earth, than there is to postulate that two colliding top quarks would decay in a way that violates conservation of energy. It takes more than an unknown fundamental law; it takes magic.


We have embarrassed our Earth long enough by failing to see the obvious. So for the honor of my Earth, I write as if the existence of many-worlds were an established fact, because it is. The only question now is how long it will take for the people of this world to update.
Many Worlds, One Best Guess
So there you have it. There are many Earths, and we are on the wrong one, the one where not teaching is teaching and Salman Khan is the man you call to help you spice up a presentation.

On the other hand, as Ed pointed out to me this afternoon, the fact that there are multiple Earths doesn't mean any of them are different. They could all be the same, the way dollar bills in your billfold are the same.

In that case, we need to find another planet altogether.


Anonymous said...

I know that your concerns here are far from the concerns of the children, parents, and teachers in Union City, but perhaps you should cut them a break. No, they're not hair-splitting about the best afterschool math study to maximize SAT scores. They're doing things entirely irrelevant to upper-middle class folks. Upper-middle class children don't have the first meal of the day at school; they don't live in homes where nobody else speaks English. Their needs are different.

And, according to the article, Union City is meeting their needs, getting them to an 89.5% graduation rater where half that would be expected.

It's all very nice and comfortable to make fun of their preschool from a distance. Ha ha, they're asking the kids to describe the smell of an onion! That's not school! But stop and think for a moment that most of the three year old children in the class may never have heard the word "onion" before, let alone the English words that may describe its smell.

The teacher Susana Rojas is right that teaching them all to repeat a bunch of syllables (one, two, three) would be a waste of her and their time. She needs to teach them enough English to have a conversation and enough behavioral norms to sit through a class, things upper-middle class kids learn at home without state intervention. And according to real outcomes (not just test scores that may be pencil-whipped), the system is working. This country needs more of what they're doing in Union City, not less. Just because they don't need it in Westchester doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

It's really very unbecoming to make fun of these children, Catherine.

lgm said...

Cancelling the coursework needed by nonimmigrants is not just unbecoming, it's the worse type of discrimination. All compelled students deserve to learn in public school, even the top 5%, and even those whose parents came over in the first wave from England hundreds of years ago. Anything else smacks of revenge, as it costs no more to offer a section of Calc 3 than it does of Algebra 1.

Hainish said...

I'm going to agree with the first commenter: What they are doing is consistent with the core knowledge philosophy that the best education is one that builds a broad knowledge base. From the stats, it seems to be working.

I'm not sure where the idea that they are canceling classes comes from.

Jen said...

I'd agree that what it seems they are talking about is perfectly acceptable for preschool. 90% of should be about exposure -- when she brings in five kinds of bread...I bet they count it. It's not written down as a specific lesson, but it's in the teacher's head that you count whenever you have the opportunity.

Just like comparing things and categorizing things will be occurring naturally throughout the day. These kids in first grade won't be confused by these sorts of requests in "regular" lessons.

The strongest and best things a preschool in that situation can do is 1) provide LOTS of language -- LOTS and LOTS -- about all the things around them and 2) teach them the behavioral and social constructs of schooling -- so that they enter kindergarten able to sit in a group, able to sit at a table and do work on a table, able to use scissors, able to hold crayons and pencils, able to sit next to someone without kicking or hitting them, able to not talk for a minutes at a time.

lgm said...

Cancelling classes is what happens in diverse districts. A child that meets expectations on day one is offered nothing else. In the past, pre-nclb, he would have been offered enrichment, EPGY, or even the opportunity to participate in elementary band or strings. Now, nothing. He may read, draw, or participate in the irrelevant lesson. Not a wise use of his time. O

Jen said...

I'll have to look around and see if I can find it. I remember a professor in grad school (the teaching stint, not the earlier one) talking about a program that a school used very successfully -- it was basically teaching kids the meanings of a lot of words that were going to be needed in their schooling, but were "background" type words.

These included words/concepts like horizontal, vertical, above, below, etc. Instead of using terms like "make a hamburger fold" -- the students learned to make a horizontal fold, etc.

Turns out knowing all those sorts of words increased both reading comprehension and math scores.

Again, that's the sort of thing that a preschool can do beautifully -- little songs and games and challenges using "school" vocabulary are developmentally appropriate AND set the kids up for learning more quickly and easily in school.

Hainish said...

lgm, I'm not sure which past you grew up in, but that certainly doesn't describe the past that I'm familiar with.

lgm said...

Past???? I am describing the present, in the Hudson Valley of NY.
Have you not seen the NY state budget? Grants for low income public schools (Poughkeepsie, Kingston, Newburgh), nothing for diverse schools but a little foundational aid that will result in the elimination of yet more nonremedial, nonrequired classes while continuing social promotion and the massive cost of inclusion, RtI. and remedial. As Anonymous said, the curriculum forced on middle class children includes many many irrelevant lessons as the schools convert to ncga. As Steve and Catherine and others have commented -- a parent has to tutor privately in order to get appropriate academics -- even though the numbers needing those classes (which were considered on grade level in my time) are enough to fill several classrooms should the inclusion mandate be lifted.

Anonymous said...

lgm, what are you even talking about?

This article is about very poor children who live in Union City, and the city's attempt to provide the best education for them. It is about the success of the education they are receiving, which turns far more of them into productive, integrated, well-educated and employed adults than they would be otherwise.

It's not about middle-class kids in the Hudson Valley who have to get help at home because their math classes are only grade-level. And these poor kids getting a better education is not taking anything away from your kids. I guarantee you do not live in Union City nor are you poor, illiterate, non-English-speaking, or food-insecure, and you would not let your children go to Union City schools for a single day. You can't complain that the remedial education provided to make these kids ready for kindergarten is taking away your kids' putative calculus class because you don't even live in the same state.

I'm sorry if your local schools do not fill your needs - mine don't either! But taking out your dissatisfaction on these unfortunate and distant children and wishing to take away from them the education that most benefits them, for no benefit whatsoever to you, is just the politics of spite.

I'm sure there are terrible problems in your school and I wish you luck with trying to resolve them, but making fun of the poor kids in Union City isn't going to get you there. It just makes you look hateful.

Hainish said...

"This article is about very poor children who live in Union City. . . It's not about middle-class kids in the Hudson Valley"

You hit the nail on the head right there. It's not about anything that could be of benefit to lgm or lgm's children; therefore, it cannot possibly be of any value or interest (except for fostering resentment against those lucky, lucky poor people's kids who get all the stuff).

Catherine Johnson said...

Anonymous wrote: It's really very unbecoming to make fun of these children, Catherine.

Unbecoming to distort my words, too.

Please keep a civil tongue. The word "hateful" is not welcome here.

Please do not use it again.

Catherine Johnson said...

btw, this article is now being forwarded to school boards by superintendents as an exemplar of what K-12 should be doing.

"I can teach a monkey to count."


Catherine Johnson said...

Hainish wrote: What they are doing is consistent with the core knowledge philosophy that the best education is one that builds a broad knowledge base

Hainish, I disagree (and I strongly object to the ad hominem tone and content of "Anonymous.")

This teacher has likened learning to count to teaching a monkey.

I find that offensive (and I realize I'm speaking in strong terms --- sorry! I'm annoyed at Anonymous, not you!)

A Spanish-speaking child CERTAINLY needs to learn the English words for numbers.

kcab said...

I agree that particular line was poorly said, but I came away from that article with a fairly positive impression of the Union City schools as a whole. I particularly liked this bit of the last paragraph, "These places — and there are a host of them, largely unsung — didn’t become exemplars by behaving like magpies, taking shiny bits and pieces and gluing them together. Instead, each devised a long-term strategy reaching from preschool to high school."

Also, I guess I tend to believe that the teachers in preschool *do* count with the kids in English, but were choosing to emphasize that they count in the context of doing other things. To me, that seems appropriate for 3 & 4 year-olds.

I'm confused about what I'm missing that makes this district's approach sound bad to you. Is it primarily the bad throw-away line or something more? It sounds like they've been reasonably successful in their approach.

Hainish said...

kcab, that's the exact impression I took away from that statement. Not that they weren't teaching counting, but that they weren't *just* teaching counting.

I don't see why there's a need to censor descritive adjectives just because people disagree online. And lgm's complete derailing was much, much more offensive than anything else said by anyone here.

Catherine Johnson said...

kcab - The essence of the improvement, as portrayed in the article (which may not be accurate/book, of course), is that in Union City students don't "memorize."

That is what I object to. "Solving problems" and "writing in journals" without spending a great deal of time practicing skills, acquiring knowledge, and memorizing is a bad way to go.

As to whether what they're doing is working, I personally believe that the 'Hawthorne effect' is real...

I also think that it's impossible to know what factors have actually produced Union City's success. I strongly doubt that eschewing memorization is the 'magic sauce.'

If I had to guess, I'd say that the shift to ordered and calm classroom environments is responsible for a lot of the gain.

Catherine Johnson said...

Also, I guess I tend to believe that the teachers in preschool *do* count with the kids in English

Right, but you are inferring that -- the article gives us no scenes of children counting, and we are told explicitly that the teacher doesn't have children 'memorize' 1-2-3 because she could teach a monkey to do that.

btw...just so I'm not misunderstood, I think the establishment of order and calm inside the schools is a fantastic achievement.

When I say my ***guess*** would be that school atmosphere is responsible for a large part of the gains, I don't mean to minimize what they've done at all. (Believe me, I know how hard it is to achieve classroom.)

That reminds me.

A couple of years ago I had a long talk with the principal of a Brooklyn school with low-income kids.

We talked about the issue of "radical mainstreaming," Mary Damer's term, and she said it was a huge problem in her school.

Radical mainstreaming means that the most challenging kids are in the regular classroom.

In her school, where radical mainstreaming was required by central administration, this meant that all of the classrooms had 1 or 2 kids whose behavior problems were intense, chronic, and severe (and probably criminal in some cases).

She said that the image people have of low-income schools & low-income students is all wrong. Most of the kids, she said, are good kids who are motivated and ***want to learn.***

Their learning is completely disrupted by the bad actors, and thanks to the doctrine of 'radical mainstreaming' basically all the kids in her school were learning far less than they should have been.

Union City has apparently taken a stand against chaos in the classroom, and given what I know of schools (including what I know of teaching more than a few low-income & remedial students myself), that is one of the most critical steps they could have taken.

Catherine Johnson said...

I don't see why there's a need to censor descritive adjectives just because people disagree online.

Here's the standard I use.

If I were speaking in person with a person I disagreed with, would I characterize his or her views or attitudes as "hateful"?


For the most part, over the years, ktm commenters have followed the rules of 'polite conversation,' and that's what I'm talking about.

I've always appreciated that about the people who write comments here.

Hainish said...

"If I were speaking in person with a person I disagreed with, would I characterize his or her views or attitudes as "hateful"?"

That mischaracterizes actually what happened here. (And if the person were so, would you still refrain from using the term?)

If a person is acting in a way is demeaning to others, that needs to be stated in no uncertain terms. See the link for more along this line of thinking.

Catherine Johnson said...

"It just makes you look hateful."

I wouldn't say this to other people, no.

If I did, I would show my face.

Catherine Johnson said...

Generally speaking, I try not to judge other people as 'hateful.'

To me, 'hateful' is a very ugly word.

Hainish said...

Sometimes people do and say things that *are* ugly, in which case ugly words serve as apt descriptors. I don't know that the prettification of language does anything but make those people less uncomfortable.

Catherine Johnson said...

OK, here's the line from the article that sums up everything I object to in the article and possibly in Union City's schools:

"To succeed, students must become thinkers, not just test-takers."

I oppose that philosophy.

Strenuously oppose.

I might even use words like 'offensive' to describe that philosophy if I weren't sitting at a kitchen table.