kitchen table math, the sequel: 4/6/08 - 4/13/08

Saturday, April 12, 2008

core knowledge

Have I ever mentioned the fact that I won $9,000 cash on a game show two days before I got married?

Well, I did.

My winning answer: Who is Norman Lear's producing partner?

title-nining science

Math 55 is advertised in the Harvard catalog as “probably the most difficult undergraduate math class in the country.” It is legendary among high school math prodigies, who hear terrifying stories about it in their computer camps and at the Math Olympiads. Some go to Harvard just to have the opportunity to enroll in it. Its formal title is “Honors Advanced Calculus and Linear Algebra,” but it is also known as “math boot camp” and “a cult.” The two-semester freshman course meets for three hours a week, but, as the catalog says, homework for the class takes between 24 and 60 hours a week.

Math 55 does not look like America. Each year as many as 50 students sign up, but at least half drop out within a few weeks. As one former student told The Crimson newspaper in 2006, “We had 51 students the first day, 31 students the second day, 24 for the next four days, 23 for two more weeks, and then 21 for the rest of the first semester.” Said another student, “I guess you can say it’s an episode of ‘Survivor’ with people voting themselves off.” The final class roster, according to The Crimson: “45 percent Jewish, 18 percent Asian, 100 percent male.”

Why do women avoid classes like Math 55? Why, in fact, are there so few women in the high echelons of academic math and in the physical sciences?

Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?
By Christina Hoff Sommers
From the March/April 2008 Issue
The American

Oh, I don't know....

Possibly because they're not insane?

Just kidding.

Women now earn 57 percent of bachelors degrees and 59 percent of masters degrees. According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, 2006 was the fifth year in a row in which the majority of research Ph.D.’s awarded to U.S. citizens went to women. Women earn more Ph.D.’s than men in the humanities, social sciences, education, and life sciences. Women now serve as presidents of Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and other leading research universities. But elsewhere, the figures are different. Women comprise just 19 percent of tenure-track professors in math, 11 percent in physics, 10 percent in computer science, and 10 percent in electrical engineering. And the pipeline does not promise statistical parity any time soon: women are now earning 24 percent of the Ph.D.’s in the physical sciences—way up from the 4 percent of the 1960s, but still far behind the rate they are winning doctorates in other fields. “The change is glacial,” says Debra Rolison, a physical chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory.

Rolison, who describes herself as an “uppity woman,” has a solution. A popular anti–gender bias lecturer, she gives talks with titles like “Isn’t a Millennium of Affirmative Action for White Men Sufficient?” She wants to apply Title IX to science education. Title IX, the celebrated gender equity provision of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, has so far mainly been applied to college sports. But the measure is not limited to sports. It provides, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of denied the benefits of...any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

While Title IX has been effective in promoting women’s participation in sports, it has also caused serious damage, in part because it has led to the adoption of a quota system. Over the years, judges, Department of Education officials, and college administrators have interpreted Title IX to mean that women are entitled to “statistical proportionality.” That is to say, if a college’s student body is 60 percent female, then 60 percent of the athletes should be female—even if far fewer women than men are interested in playing sports at that college. But many athletic directors have been unable to attract the same proportion of women as men. To avoid government harassment, loss of funding, and lawsuits, they have simply eliminated men’s teams. Although there are many factors affecting the evolution of men’s and women’s college sports, there is no question that Title IX has led to men’s participation being calibrated to the level of women’s interest. That kind of calibration could devastate academic science.

But unfortunately, in her enthusiasm for Title IX, Rolison is not alone.

On October 17, 2007, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology convened to learn why women are “underrepresented” in academic professorships of science and engineering and to consider what the federal government should do about it.
As a rule, women tend to gravitate to fields such as education, English, psychology, biology, and art history, while men are much more numerous in physics, mathematics, computer science, and engineering.

There are many days when I think that one of the worst problems in education is the complete and total domination of the field by women. We desperately need some guys in the schools and running the schools.

Interestingly, Ed says that the field history continues to be a guy thing. Every other field in the humanities has been taken over by women, but men continue to outnumber women in the study of history. There are many more female historians than there once were, but the field hasn't "flipped," the way literature and art history fields have.

I don't know what to make of that.

Needed in class: a few good men
Are male teachers on the road to extinction?

U = E x V / I x D

Steel developed the equation U = E x V / I x D, where U is the desire to complete the task; E, the expectation of success; V, the value of completion; I, the immediacy of task; and D, the personal sensitivity to delay, as a way of mathematically mapping a given individual's procrastination response. So, for example, my desire to finish this article is influenced by my relative confidence in writing it well and the prospect of a paycheck as well as a looming deadline and my inherent desire to go home at the end of the day. "You're more likely to put something off if you're a very impulsive individual," Steel says. But, "if you only work at the last minute, time on task tells."

Of course, this does not explain why humans would procrastinate in the first place, but it is certainly not a new problem. The Greek poet Hesiod, writing in 800 B.C., averred "a man who puts off work is always at handgrips with ruin" and the divine incarnation Krishna singled out procrastinators for special scorn in the Bhagavad Gita. Nor does it explain why procrastination seems to be on the rise--afflicting as many as 95 percent of students and at least 15 percent of adults, according to two recent surveys.

Why Do Today What You Can Put Off Until Tomorrow
by David Biello
Scientific American
January 15, 2007


I can tell you exactly why procrastination is on the rise.


Projects are long-duration behavior. Everyone procrastinates long-duration behavior, even chickens. Maybe especially chickens; who knows? Turn K-12 into 13 years of project-based, collaborative learning, et voilĂ ! Epidemic levels of procrastination! This generation will emerge from high school suffering the customary math phobia, and on top of that they'll have writer's block and chronic problems with procrastination and time-management.

Once they're all settled into lifelong therapy and/or AA, we'll need a whole new slew of child-centered reforms to fix the schools.

Procrastination Central

The Educational Industrial Complex

Today I came across a great blog entry over at The Daily Kos by Nanoman, "a professor of electrical and computer engineering in Louisville, Kentucky and a parent who has had children attending K-12 public schools." He's taken the liberty of welcoming Education to "the old familiar Military, Tobacco, Pharmaceutical and Medical Insurance Industrial Complexes."

He prefaces a fabulous chart, a centerpiece of the blog entry, with this:
Please forgive the hyped intro, but the story that follows (which is summarized in the blue and yellow chart) is worth reading because it is being repeated in school districts across the country where choreographed ploys are used to bypass parent concerns about poor math texts.

Just take a look at Math Wars: The Educational Industrial Complex. The chart with Steve Leinwand at the center of all the hullabaloo is certainly worth the price of admission.

When you're done with that, you might want to check out "Is Our Children Learning" Math Texts too.

"another contraption"

in the Sun yesterday:

The schools chancellor, Joel Klein, and the president of the teachers' union, Randi Weingarten, are locked in a bitter debate over whether test scores should be used to evaluate teachers. Mr. Klein thinks they should and Ms. Weingarten thinks they shouldn't. The legislature and the governor have sided with Ms. Weingarten, and it looks like New York is going to be the only state in the union that will forbid using test scores to evaluate teachers. As it happens, we're not terribly excited about this fight one way or another, because we don't think test scores should be the device for evaluating teachers. We have another contraption we favor for evaluating teachers. It's called parents.

How To Evaluate Teachers
NY Sun April 11, 2008

That's what I call upping the ante.

Andrew Wolf on test scores & tenure

Much of the current controversy over the use of standardized tests to determine teacher tenure is a reflection of the fact that many teachers are being evaluated by principals who themselves have no expertise running a classroom. The experiments attempting to create "instant" principals now can be declared a failure. Insuring that there is a fully qualified "principal teacher" running a school costs not a penny more than hiring an unqualified neophyte.

Making Do with Fewer Dollars
Andrew Wolf
New York Sun
April 11, 2008

He's talking about the Leadership Academies.

Friday, April 11, 2008

in the Sun today

In the midst of the state financial crisis, the governor and legislature still found funds in the budget to increase education spending across the state by a record $1.75 billion dollars. School spending has long been at the center of a key public policy debate, one that was "resolved" by a settlement of the long standing Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit.

That lawsuit began as an effort to create a uniform funding formula that would insure that New York City schoolchildren would get a "fair" share of total state spending. It morphed into debate as to just how much public spending it takes to provide a quality education.

Now that settlement is at risk. This year the funds were "found." Next year is likely to bring a heavy dose of fiscal reality due to an uncertain economy.


If one measures a quality education by an improvement in test scores, we have already proven in New York City that there is no linkage between increased education expenditures and better performance, at least those measured by test scores.

Students here have been the beneficiaries of the most substantial increase in school spending ever. The city education budget has ballooned under Mayor Bloomberg from $12.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2003 to more than $20 billion annually now. Although some of this results from increased state aid, and a bit from federal largesse, most of the influx of cash comes out of the pockets of city taxpayers. All this money is serving a measurably smaller student population — during this same period, city public schools lost 60,000 students, about a 5% decline.


Curriculum Choice. Teaching and curriculum strategies can be divided, albeit simplistically, into two categories: progressivism and instructivism. Progressive education, which assumes that children gather knowledge naturally with little intervention by teachers dominates our schools, almost to the exclusion of what most of us would deem "traditional" teacher-led instruction. This is the strategy that has failed us both in the days before mayoral control as well as today.

Why not offer parents, within the existing public schools, the explicit choice of which pedagogy they prefer for their children? This can be done in any school with two or more classes per grade, and not add anything to the cost of instruction. My suspicion is that the test scores of children taught a content-rich curriculum in a traditional setting will outpace those of the students in the "progressive" classroom next door. In fact, I would predict that in not too many years, progressive pedagogy would retreat into a small number of "boutique" schools, as parental demand for better instruction grows. While choice advocates continue their fight for vouchers and increasing the number of charter schools, parents can be given potent choices that can be put in place now, and with substantially less controversy. For those who seek to build better communities by strengthening neighborhood schools, here is a way to achieve this without removing more tax dollars from our pockets.

Making Do With Fewer Dollars
by Andrew Wolf
NY Sun April 11, 2008

I've been saying this for years.

Create a constructivist track and a classical or traditional track inside the same school. Let parents choose which track they prefer for their kids; let teachers choose which track they prefer to teach.

The Main Street School once did something like this. Two of the best teachers in the school teamed up to teach a "project course." All content was to be taught via projects.

Approximately 25% of the "rising" 5th grade parents signed their kids up for the class. And remember: these teachers were universally seen as terrific people and professionals. And yet I was told at the time that the school was having to recruit parents to enroll their kids in the class, and some parents signed up mainly to guarantee their children would be with their friends. The rest of us couldn't choose our kids' classmates.

The point is: Irvington has already run this experiment, and we have our answer. A constructivist class here in Irvington will attract 25% of the parent population at most even under the best of circumstances. The vast majority of parents -- that would be the people who are paying the bills and elect the school board -- did not want their kids in a project-based class.

Today, just 4 years later, we are a project-based district K-8, and the high school is in the cross hairs.

They do what they do.

Gering Public Schools: The School District to Watch

The National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI) has a new documentary video and article posted on one of their whole school reform implementations in Gering, Nebraska.

I have a short post on the video at d-ed reckoning.

The implementation began in 2004 and involves all four elementary schools in the district and the district's only junior high. Here's a chart I made up showing the status of the implementation.

As you can see, this year (07-08), the grades K-3 have had DI since they began school and grades 4-6 have all had four years of DI. The implementation is still fairly new and hasn't quite stabilized yet, but is already showing remarkable achievement gains. Some of these gains are shown in the documentary. I have also received additional information/data from NIFDI and Gering showing even more for you data nerds. I'll be posting on them soon.

What is even more noteworthy is that starting next year, the junior high (7th graders) will begin getting sixth grade students who have had four years of DI instruction. By the 2010 -11 school year, every grade of the junior high will have students with 4 to 6 years of DI instruction. Back in 2004, 90% of the seventh graders were placing in a remedial reading program (Reading Mastery VI or below). In 2008, Gering is projecting that only 10% will be reading on a remedial level. You can bet a good portion of these students are transfer students.

Even cooler is the fact that Gering only has one junior high school and one high school. Each of the four elementary schools, and only those schools, feed into the junior high, which then feeds into the high school. I don't think we have ever seen a public junior high school in which every student has received effective instruction in grades K-6 such that they aer almost all performing at grade level and ready to learn content area instruction.

I think this is a pretty big deal and Gering will be a model school showing what kind of academic improvement we can expect to see in a real public school district.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

going nuclear

Joe Williams on the no teacher left untenured legislation Brett brought to our attention a week ago.

Kevin Carey on same.

Daily News.

NYTIMES says "no."

So that's a clean sweep.

And here is Randi Weingarten explaining why a law forbidding school boards from looking at student test scores when granting tenure does not "take away local control":

Opponents are arguing that the legislation takes away local control from school districts. In fact, it does nothing of the kind. Nothing precludes districts from making tenure decisions based on myriad criteria —just not student test scores.

Right Way to Grade Teachers
Randi Weingarten
New York Sun, April 7, 2008

And these are the people teaching our kids "critical thinking."

Meanwhile, my own district uses scores of "3" on the state test to refuse 7th grade students a place in 8th grade algebra. Yes, the 8th grade algebra class has any number of kids with scores of "3" on the state test currently enrolled and doing well, but never mind.

Life-altering decisions for kids, not teachers, can be based on these tests.

one more nail in the coffin

The union's advocacy for this legislation strikes me as a misstep.

Few parents are aware that student achievement is not factored into teacher evaluations. I certainly wasn't. Just the other day, a parent I know who spends every evening reteaching his child's h.s. science course at home asked me, "Are teachers ever evaluated based on how well their students learn what they're teaching?"

The answer is no. Student achievement doesn't enter in. No data on student achievement inside a particular teacher's classroom as compared to any other teacher's classroom are collected, and no such data are used in tenure and promotion cases.

This is deadly for kids and families in two ways:

  • first, ineffective teachers are granted tenured
  • second -- and perhaps more importantly -- when ineffective teachers receive tenure and students fail to learn in their classes, the student is blamed for the problems. The student has failed to prepare for class, the student has failed to Seek Extra Help, the student has failed to develop inferential thinking and/or conceptual understanding, and on and on. [see Galen Alessi]

Obviously, there are lots of other problems, too, one being the fact that highly effective teachers have no special protection from the whims of administrators and precious little authority outside the four walls of their classrooms. If an administrator wants to treat a star teacher like a pawn on a chess board, he can.

But that's a story for another day.

In a "standards-based era," the trouble with this system -- and it is everywhere the system -- is that it only works as long as parents and the broader public are kept in the dark. This is why schools are managed via loose coupling:

....the administrative superstructure of the organization – principals, board members, and administrators—exists to “buffer” the weak technical core of teaching from outside inspection, interference, or disruption.

Administration in education, then, has come to mean not the management of instruction but the management of the structures and processes around instruction. That which cannot be directly managed must, in this view, be protected from external scrutiny. Buffering consists of creating structures and procedures around the technical core of teaching that, at the same time, (1) protect teachers from outside intrusions in their highly uncertain and murky work, and (2) create the appearance of rational management of the technical core, so as to allay the uncertainties of the public about the actual quality or legitimacy of what is happening in the technical core. This buffering creates what institutional theorists call a “logic of confidence” between public schools and their constituents. Local board members, system-level administrators, and school administrators perform the ritualistic tasks of organizing, budgeting, managing, and dealing with disruptions inside and outside the system, all in the name of creating and maintaining public confidence in the institutions of public education. Teachers, working in isolated classrooms, under highly uncertain conditions, manage the technical core. This division of labor has been amazingly constant over the past century.

Building a New Structure for School Leadership
by Richard Elmore
Albert Shanker Institute

The purpose of loose-coupling is to protect the core function of the school -- instruction -- from "outside" scrutiny and interference: "outside" meaning parents and taxpayers. Most of the time this goal is achieved by keeping things secret, either directly, e.g. by refusing "comment," or indirectly, by speaking and writing in acronyms and buzz-words. Acronyms & buzz-words serve their protective purpose extremely well. For instance, I would estimate, conservatively, that 9 out of 10 parents cannot tell you what the words "balanced literacy" mean. If nobody knows what "balanced literacy" means, nobody's going to squawk because his school is using a balanced literacy curriculum. No one's even going to know. Unless a parent has spent years immersing himself in the edu-world, he has no clue what's going on. True of school board members, too.

However, the whole scheme starts to come undone once you have the president of the teachers' union publicly lobbying for legislation making it illegal even to consider objective measures of student achievement in awarding tenure. It comes as news to your basic parent and taxpayer that the schools are not now, and never have been, using test scores and the like as part of tenure decisions.

Plus which, while 9 out of 10 parents have no idea what an SBRR reading curriculum is, no one is going to have a problem working out the meaning of a statement like, "teachers shouldn’t be evaluated on student test scores."

It's a short step from there to voting down school budgets.

death by data redux

That said, I should add that I can see why Randi Weingarten & c. would want such a law on the books. Death by data can't be any more more fun for teachers than it is for students and parents.

Still, I would appreciate some recognition from Ms. Weingarten that just as a teacher can be blamed for a student's educationally impoverished home life when statistics are used incorrectly, millions of American school children are blamed for their teachers' failings each and every day of the school year.

inquiry-based inquiry not easy, but how we conceptualize things makes a difference. The viable alternative we have been exploring involves reconceptualizing the whole of education as inquiry. For us and the teachers with whom we work, education-as-inquiry represents a real shift in how we think about education...We want to see reading as inquiry, writing as inquiry, classroom discipline as inquiry, and both teaching and learning as inquiry. Instead of organizing curriculum around disciplines, we want to organize curriculum around the personal and social inquiry questions of learners...Inquiry as we see it is about unpacking issues for purposes of creating a more just, a more equitable, a more thoughtful world...Theoretically, education-as-inquiry finds its roots in whole language, sociopsycholinguistic, or, these days what we prefer to call socio-semiotic theory or what others call cultural studies.
(Harste & Leland, 1998. p. 192-3)

Martin Kozloff quotes this passage in a post to the DI list.


Peeps Show II

which vs that

from The Grammar Girl

While we're on the subject of things I didn't learn in school, also see The Grammar Vandal's Everything's More Erroneous in Texas.

Actually, I am perfectly capable of spelling "authorized" and "personnel." Don't know when and where I learned how, but I can handle it.

What I cannot spell is flokati.

Scratch that.

What I could not spell in last February's spelling bee was flokati. My team decided to go with floccati.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

calling all teachers

Common Errors of Classroom Practice

  • activities equal content
  • "hard" teacher questions promote student understanding
  • review and reteaching promote student understanding
  • "active" teaching promotes high student engagement and understanding
  • students learn by asking teachers questions about things they don't understand
Instructional Improvement in (Nominally) High-Performing School Systems
by Richard F. Elmore

Graduate School of Education
Harvard University
Fall 2004

I don't entirely understand this list.

I believe it, but I don't understand it. Not well enough.

The one point I completely get but can't explain well is the last: students learn by asking teachers questions about things they don't understand.

That's the Extra Help doesn't help principle.

4 for 4

I've decided to quit while I'm ahead.

Monty Hall redux

Monty Hall redux

The Monty Hall Problem has struck again, and this time it’s not merely embarrassing mathematicians. If the calculations of a Yale economist are correct, there’s a sneaky logical fallacy in some of the most famous experiments in psychology.

The economist, M. Keith Chen, has challenged research into cognitive dissonance, including the 1956 experiment that first identified a remarkable ability of people to rationalize their choices.


For half a century, experimenters have been using what’s called the free-choice paradigm to test our tendency to rationalize decisions. This tendency has been reported hundreds of times and detected even in animals.

And Behind Door Number 1, A Fatal Flaw
John Tierney
NY Times April 8, 2008

death by data

bonus points: After you play the Monty Hall game online you can fire up the National Geographic jigsaw generator.

And don't forget Glumbert.

low birth weight & Monty Hall
more on false positives
Monty Hall part 2
Monty Hall in Curious Incident
Doug Sundseth on Monty Hall problem
probability question from Saxon Math

A Barrier to Academic Achievement: Difficulty with Handwriting, and a Solution

According to a recent study, somewhere between 10% to 30% of children have difficulty learning to produce rapid, legible hand-written work(1). Handwriting difficulty is often linked with other problems such as attention deficit disorder. Poor quality of handwriting of children with handwriting problems seems particularly related to a deficiency in visual-motor integration. (2)

Children who do not acquire fluent, legible handwriting in the early years often experience far-reaching negative effects on both academic success and self-esteem.(1)

“Handwriting is one of the basic building blocks of good writing and plays a critical role in learning,” Graham, Currey Ingram Professor of Special Education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, said. “Young children who have difficulty mastering this skill often avoid writing and their writing development may be arrested. They also may have trouble taking notes and following along in class, which will further impede their development.”

There are three possible sources of children developing handwriting difficulties: a problem with the child, a problem with the teacher, or a problem with the curricula (and related materials).

In " How do primary grade teachers teach handwriting? A national survey",(3) the authors found that

Nine out of every ten teachers indicated that they taught handwriting, averaging 70 minutes of instruction per week. Only 12% of teachers, however, indicated that the education courses taken in college adequately prepared them to teach handwriting. Despite this lack of formal preparation, the majority of teachers used a variety of recommended instructional practices for teaching handwriting. The application of such practices, though, was applied unevenly, raising concerns about the quality of handwriting instruction for all children.

In a less-formal presentation of the national study data, Steve Graham is intereviewed:

Graham suggests that a return to consistent handwriting instruction, with an understanding of the challenges different children face, would not only result in more legible papers but also support overall learning across subjects.

“Teachers need to continue to teach their students how to properly form and join letters. We found that this sort of instruction takes place for 10 minutes or less a day in most schools, down from two hours a week in the 1950s,” Graham said. “At home, there are many things that parents can do to help their young children improve their penmanship. Activities such as identifying and tracing letters, forming letters from memory, copying words and playing timed games to see how quickly they can accurately produce written letters and words all go toward building this skill.”

There are two common handwriting approaches or curricula used in U.S. schools--one: traditional, based on the Palmer method, and two: "italicized" -- more flowing. The most popular of the former is Zaner-Bloser and the most popular of the latter is d'Nealian (developed by Donald Thurber).

There is very little research on the relative effectiveness and efficiency of each approach.

There is, however, a third way: Handwriting Without Tears.

I spent Friday and Saturday at a Handwriting Without Tears seminar. Handwriting Without Tears (HWT) was created in the 1970s by an occupational therapist as a remedial program, and over the decades, has grown into (1) a pre-K through 5th grade classroom curriculum and (2) a remedial program..

It works as a classroom curriculum because the letters are taught in logical order, the letter formation skills are taught to mastery, and the curriculum uses multisensory methods. The teacher watches for, and immediately corrects, errors in letter formation, and the curriculum includes frequent "Review and Mastery" opportunities.

It works as a remedial program because HWR's authors have structured remediation in small, precise steps.

I highly recommend Handwriting Without Tears.

1. Feder KP, Majnemer A. Dev Med Child Neurol. 2007 Apr;49(4):312-7.
2. Volman MJ, van Schendel BM, Jongmans MJ. Am J Occup Ther. 2006 Jul-Aug;60(4):451-60.
3. Graham S, Harris KR, Mason L, Fink-Chorzempa B, Moran S, Saddler B Reading and Writing 2008 21(1-2):49-69.


Handwriting Key to Learming, Newsweek, November 12 2007

LD Podcast: Dr. Steve Graham on writing development.

Interview with Steve Graham

Previous KTM Posts referencing Handwriting
Somewhere in a Well to Do District

Learning in a Castle of Fear

Speed Test

a great student!

I hope le radical galoisen doesn't mind the title of this post (if he does, I'll change it!)

I've called him (you) a student only because lrg has talked about school & college applications, and because his comment on the Brain Rules fantasy school is an example of what the education world is concerned with these days, which is making connections between what you're reading now and what you've read before.

(I can't bring myself to use the words prior knowledge. Sorry.)

The concept appears sound, observing from the case of a man (I forgot his name) whose hippocampus was almost totally destroyed in a viral attack, though he retained all of his skilled faculties from speaking very sophisticatedly to singing opera (though he had no personal memories).

Now of course, who wants to be the guinea pig?

lrg has jumped to what Medina describes as the main source of evidence for the existence of a 10-year "consolidation" rule (although lrg is actually making a useful point about procedural memory - I'll get to that). lrg is talking about a man named H. M.

Here's John Medina on H.M.:

But the rigor of Ebbinghaus gave future scientists their first real shot at mapping behavior onto a living brain. Then a 9-year-old boy was knocked off his bicycle, forever changing the way brain scientists thought about memory.

In his accident, H.M. suffered a severe head injury that left him with epileptic seizures. these seizures got worse with age, eventually culminating in one major seizure and 10 blackout periods every seven days. By his late 20s, H.M. was essentially dysfunctional, of potential great harm to himself, in need of drastic medical intervention.

The desperate family turned to famed neurosurgeon William Scoville, who decided that the problem lay within the brain's temporal lobe (the brain region roughly located behind your ears). Scoville excised the inner surface of this lobe on both sides of the brain. This experimental surgery greatly helped the epilepsy. It also left H.M. with a catastrophic memory loss. Since the day the surgery was completed, in 1953, H.M. has been unable to convert a new short-term memory into a long-term memory. He can meet you once and then an hour or two later meet you again, with absolutely no recall of the first visit.

He has lost the conversion ability Ebbinghaus so clearly described in his research more than 50 years before.

And here is Medina on the "conversion ability":

...our friend Ebbinghaus was the first to demonstrate the existence of two types of memory systems, a short form and a long form. He further demonstrated that repetition could convert one into the other under certain conditions. The process of converting short-term memory traces [through spaced repetition] to longer, sturdier forms is called consolidation.


Memory may not be fixed at the moment of learning, but repetition, doled out in specifially timed intervals, is the fixative.


Ebbinghaus showed the power of repetition in exhaustive detail almost 100 years ago. He even created "forgetting curves," which showed that a great deal of memory loss occurs in the first hour or two after initial exposure. He demonstrated that this loss could be lessened by deliberate repetitions.

In a nutshell -- and allowing for the fact that these processes are still not well understood --

  • Memory consolidation means that a memory has moved from short term memory to long term memory.
  • "Moving" from short term memory to long term memory means that a memory has moved from the hippocampus, in the temporal medial lobe, to the cortex.
  • This process takes approximately 10 years.

We know this because H.M., whose hippocampus had been destroyed, lost all of his memories going back 11 years:

If you were to graph his memory, you would start out with a very high score and then, 11 years before his surgery, drop it to near zero, where it would remain forever.

What does that mean? If the hippocampus were involved in all memory abilities, its complete removal should destroy all memory abilities--wipe the memory clean. But it doesn't. The hippocampus is relevant to memory formation for more than a decade after the event was recruited for long-term storage. After that, the memory somehow makes it to another region, one not affected by H.M.'s brain losses, and as a result, H.M. an retrieve it. H.M., and patients like him, tell us the hippocampus holds on to a newly formed memory trace for years. Not days. Not months. Years. Even a decade or more. System consolidation, that process of transforming a labile memory into a durable one, can take years to complete. During that time, the memory is not stable.

Brain Rules by John Medina

On a slightly different subject, lrg is actually talking about procedural memory (how to ride a bike memory), and I'm glad he brought that up. As he says, H.M.'s procedural memory was spared:

Investigators keen to argue for the separability of procedural memory had to look no further than the extensive investigations of H.M. In 1966, Miner reported that H.M. showed a completely normal learning curve on the mirror drawing task and, a little later, Corkin (1968) showed that H.M. learned at a comparable rate to normals on the pursuit rotor, bimanual, and tapping tasks. She also observed the development of “testing habits” whereby H.M. would become increasingly familiar with the testing procedures (knowing how to turn the equipment on, etc.) even though he denied any conscious recollection of having undertaken any of the tasks before. The selective preservation of procedural memory has now been observed in many amnesic patients but the purity of the preservation in H.M. has rarely been equalled.

Classic Cases in Neuropsychology
edited by Chris Code, Claus-W. Wallesch, Yves Joanette and Andre Roch Lecours
p. 342

I'm disappointed to see that John Medina doesn't appear to discuss procedural memory at all. drat! I need someone like Medina to go through 50 years of research, read everything that's been discovered and/or hypothesized about the relationship between procedural, declarative, and semantic memory, and then explain it to me & everyone else.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Teach Effectively! Bogus Bowl III -- go vote

John Wills Lloyd has a regular feature at his blog, Teach Effectively!, in which he asks readers to chose between a set of bogus reform initiatives.

Bogus Bowl III is up. Go vote. The choices are
Which of these is the most bogus reason for not testing whether students have learned what educators purport to teach?
  • Testing might injure students' self-esteem.
  • Some children are just not good test takers.
  • Testing disrupts learning itself.
  • Testing will take time away from teaching.
  • Tests can never reveal what students have truly learned.

But remember, you have to go to Teach Effectively! to vote.

Bogus Bowl I:

Which of the following reform movements is the most bogus?
  • Brain-based instruction. (59%, 57 Votes)
  • Differentiated instruction. (16%, 15 Votes)
  • Block scheduling for classes at the secondary level. (15%, 14 Votes)
  • Inclusion of students with disabilities in general education settings. (10%, 10 Votes)
Bogus Bowl II
Which of the following is the most bogus reason for refusing to provide effective instruction to students?
  • That kind of instruction may be good for some students, but it just doesn’t fit my teaching style. (35%, 34 Votes)
  • Students will learn it when they’re ready. (33%, 32 Votes)
  • Nobody can teach students who come from bad homes. (24%, 24 Votes)
  • Some students just have crossed wires in their heads. (8%, 8 Votes)

John Medina's experimental high school

You recall that the hippocampus is wired to receive information from the cortex as well as return information to it. Declarative memories appear to be terminally stored in the same cortical systems involved in the initial processing of the stimulus. In other words, the final resting place is also the region that served as the initial starting place. The only separation is time, not location. These data have a great deal to say not only about storage but also about recall. Retrieval for a fully mature memory trace 10 years later may simply be an attempt to reconstruct the initial moments of learning, when the memory was only a few milliseconds old! So, the current model looks something like this:

1) Long-term memories occur from accumulations of synaptic changes in the cortex as a result of multiple reinstatements [spaced repetitions] of the memory.

2) These reinstatements are directed by the hippocampus [in the temporal lobe], perhaps for years.

3) Eventually the memory becomes independent of the medial temporal lobe, and this newer, more stable memory trace is permanently stored in the cortex.

4) Retrieval mechanisms may reconstruct the original pattern of neurons initially recruited during the first moments of learning.


The day of a typical high-school student is segmented into five or six 50-minute periods, consisting of unrepeated (and unrelenting) streams of information. Using as a framework the timing requirements suggested by working memory, how would you change this five-period fire hose? What you’d come up with might be the strangest classroom experience in the world. Here’s my fantasy:

In the school of the future, lessons are divided into 25-minute modules, cyclically repeated throughout the day. Subject A is taught for 25 minutes, constituting the first exposure. Ninety minutes later, the 25-minute content of Subject A is repeated, and then a third time. All classes are segmented and interleaved in such a fashion. Because these repetition schedules slow down the amount of information capable of being addressed per unit of time, the school year is extended into the summer.


In the future school, every third or fourth day would be reserved for reviewing the facts delivered in the previous 72 to 96 hours. During these “review holidays,” previous information would be presented in compressed fashion. Students would have a chance to inspect the notes they took during the initial exposures, comparing tem with what the teacher was saying in the review. This would result in a greater elaboration of the information, and it would help the teachers deliver accurate information. A formalized exercise in error-checking soon would become a regular and positive part of both the teacher and student learning experiences.

It is quite possible that such models would eradicate the need for homework. At its best, homework served only to force the student to repeat content. If that repetition were supplied during the course of the day, there might be little need for re-exposure. This isn’t because homework isn’t important as a concept. In the future school, it may simply be unnecessary.

Could models like these actually work? Deliberately spaced repetitions have not been tested rigorously in the real world, so there are lots of questions. Do you really need three separate repetitions per subject per day to accrue a positive outcome? Do all subjects need such repetition? Might such interleaved vigor hurt learning, with constant repetitions beginning to interfere with one another as the day wore on? Do you really need review holidays, and if so, do you need them every three to four days? We don’t know.

Years and years

Today, students are expected to know certain things by certain grades. Curiously absent from this model is how durable that learning remains after the student completes the grade. Given that system consolidation can take years, might the idea of grade-level expectations need amending? Perhaps learning in the long view should be thought of the same way one thinks of immune booster shots, with critical pieces of information being repeated on a yearly or semi-yearly basis.

In my fantasy class, this is exactly what happens. Repetitions begin with a consistent and rigorous review of multiplication tables, fractions, and decimals. First learned in the third grade, six-month and yearly review sessions on these basic facts occur through sixth grade. As mathematical competencies increase in sophistication, the review content is changed to reflect greater understanding. But the cycles are still in place. In my fantasy, these consistent repetition disciplines, stretched out over long periods of time, create enormous benefits for every academic subject, especially foreign languages.

Brain Rules, by John Medina
p. 141-142; 143-145

Brain Rules web site
Neuroscience for Kids

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A University Professor Writes: "There Is Something Wrong In American Secondary Education

April 8, 2008--See update--I owe an apology to the Angry Professor, who writes the blog A Gentleman's C.

The professor blogs at A Gentleman's C, and describes herself as follows:
I am a tenured faculty member at a large state university. My teaching efforts primarily consist of delivering statistics lectures to social science majors. These experiences have colored my perspective somewhat.
In the post that follows, the blogger is writing about her experiences grading essays written by high-school students for a competitive scholarship, which require high SAT/ACT scores for eligibility. This year, she was judging essays written in the history category. She found about only 2% to be thoughtful and well-written.

I should have made abundantly clear that the phrase "
Something like, say, the wheel" was the professor's replacement phrase for the actual question. The replacement phrase was used to protect the anonymity of the students' responses.

I also should have made more clear that I found the value in the post to be in the comments.
The students were asked to describe what life would be like today if something critical to modern society had never been invented. Something like, say, the wheel. Here is a little sample of what the kids had to say:
  • "History is a very valuable topic to today's society."
  • "The wheel should never have been invented in order to benefit society."
  • "Thousands of people would strew together creating uncertainty and disorder."
  • "Without the wheel, all of mankind would have been and would be vastly effected."
  • "The industrial revolution began with the invention of the wheel in 15th century Europe."
Go read the comments, as well.


Four, three, two, one

Listen up, ya'll, 'cause this is it
The numbers we're making are so vicious

Mathmaticious expeditious can be kind of scary
I hope my answers aren't radical or imaginary
I convert percents to fractions, it brings me some satisfaction
Like scientific notation and order of operations
Mathmaticious (repetitious)
Gets me expeditious
My answers may get vicious
My eraser's left in stitches
I make wishes (woo-ah)
I get the answer right, right
And I'll be staying up all night just to check what I write

Mathmaticious (The Pythagorean Theory)
Mathmaticious (Finds the hypotenuse for me)
Mathmaticious (Or I'll use trigonometry)
I'm Mathmaticious (d-d-d-d-d-decimal, decimal)


Citizen Journalist Hit With Subpoena Intended to Intimidate

Childhood vaccination is one of the great public health successes of the last 50 years. However, a miniscule fraction of children and adults do have an adverse reaction to vaccines, so in 1988 the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) was established.

While in the late 1990s, responsible people proposed a hypothesis that the rise in incidence of autism was somehow correlated with the rise in the number and kind of vaccinations infants and young children received.

That's how science works, after all: noticing changes in the environment and wondering why the changes are occurring. Then there's the next step: conducting rigorous experiments to determine the relationships, if any, between the two observed phenomena. Then, if the predictions the hypothesis made are borne out by the experiment(s), then the hypothesis can be kept (and/or expanded). Otherwise, a responsible person must reject -- throw out, give up -- the hypothesis.

One hypothesis was that a mercury-derivative vaccine preservative, thimerasol, somehow contributed to, or caused, autism. Arthur Allen's 2002 article, The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory, explains some of the factors and the timeline. By March, 2003, researchers concluded:

On the basis of current evidence, we consider it improbable that thimerosal and autism are linked.

The research continued, however, investigating possible links between autism and exposure to mercury via vaccination. No correlation has ever been found. As David Gorski wrote in Mercury in vaccines as a cause of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): A failed hypothesis

The scientific data, taken in totality, do not support a link between mercury in vaccines and autism.

In other words, there's no "controversy" any more -- there is no link between vaccination and autism. There's no valid "debate" about the role of vaccination in autism.

However, there is still a large and vocal claque that proclaims "never mind the science, there is too a connection."

One of the people opposing the claque is Kathleen Seidel, a citizen journalist at the website, "honoring the diversity of human wiring". Lately, she has been closely following two related topics, litigation that claims that autism is a vaccine injury, and unresearched and dangerous "treatments" for autism that address the alleged vaccine injury. About the former, one attorney finds Seidel writes "fearless, systematically researched, and frequently brilliant ongoing critique of autism vaccine litigation."

It turns out that vaccine-injury litigation is a lucrative field, as pointed out in Seidel's March 24, 2008 post: The Commerce in Causation. In the last eighteen months, one attorney, Clifford Shoemaker, has been paid $584,449.28 by the VICP. Shoemaker's website continues to push the thoroughly disproved hypothesis that autism is related to vaccination.

Shoemaker also represents Rev. Lisa Sykes and Seth Sykes in their $20 million dollar personal-injury suit, seeking compensation for alleged harm to their son.

While Seidel has written several blog posts about the Sykes' suit and the scientific validity of treatments they have sought for their son, she has no other connection with the case. However, shortly after Seidel published The Commerce in Causation, Shoemaker served her with a wide-ranging and invasive subpoena in the Sykes case.

Walter Olson, writing at Overlawyered:
Instead, the first phrase that occurred to me on looking through the subpoena was "fishing expedition", and the second was "intimidation". Several clauses indicate that Shoemaker is hoping to turn up evidence that Seidel has accepted support from the federal government, or from vaccine makers, which she says she hasn't.
Olsen went on to say,
Should the subpoena somehow be upheld and its onerous demands enforced, it could signal chilly legal times ahead for bloggers
Seidel has entered a motion to quash the subpoena, and a number of bloggers have voiced support for Seidel and have condemned Shoemaker's actions.

What does the Seidel subpoena have to do with Kitchen Table Math? A couple of things. One, some of us have loved ones on the autism spectrum. Two, one of the mottos for KTM might be: show us the evidence. ABFF, writing at Whise Planet Is It Anyway?, defines "neurodiversity advocates do not object to reasonable diets and vitamins, but rather to harmful products and quack therapies." Isn't that what we do here, object to harmful products and quack...educational approaches?

Footnote: if you would like reliable commentary on recent findings on autism, you should read the blog Translating Autism: "Autism Research demystified: A summary of the latest scientific findings in the causes and treatments of Autism."