kitchen table math, the sequel: 9/30/12 - 10/7/12

Saturday, October 6, 2012

testing, testing

Kathleen Scalise, an associate professor at the University of Oregon who studies how computers can be used in learning, has mapped out a taxonomy of testing innovations that includes a range of nontraditional types of questions. One...shows 15 bubbles containing words like “Congressmen,” “President,” “Supreme Court,” and “Justices,” and asks students to connect them to each other using arrows and arrange them in clusters. *
What to Test Instead by Leon Neyfakh | Ideas | Boston Globe | September 16, 2012
Or, alternatively, you could ask students to write a coherent paragraph deploying the principles of coordination, subordination, and sentence end-focus to express the relationships among these terms.

But whatever.

* The other one "asks students to move a pair of street lights around so that a woman shown on the screen casts two shadows."

Friday, October 5, 2012

Is this true?

Each school day, millions of students move in unison from classroom to classroom where they listen to 50- to 90-minute lectures. Despite there being anywhere from 20 to 300 humans in the room, there is little actual interaction. This model of education is so commonplace that we have accepted it as a given. For centuries, it has been the most economical way to “educate” a large number of students.
Why School Should Focus on Engagement Instead of Lectures by Salman Khan
I'm trying to think how long I talk at a stretch, with no word from my students.

Five minutes? (For passersby, I teach freshman composition in the context of an English class.)

I'll have to time myself.

It strikes me as unlikely in the extreme that "millions of students" are spending entire school days listening to 50- to 90-minute lectures 6 hours a day.

In fact, it strikes me as being at least somewhat unlikely you could force millions of students to listen to 50- to 90-minute lectures 6 hours a day even if you tried. But I could be wrong.

My impression (and again, I don't know) is that the only teachers using straight lecture as their predominant or exclusive method of conveying knowledge to students are college professors teaching lecture courses. And lecture courses in my experience typically have "recitation" or "discussion" sections where the content of the lecture is elaborated and questions answered.

Plus college students take four courses, or thereabouts, each of which meets typically 2 to 3 times a week, so college students aren't spending 6 hours a day listening to lecture even when they're taking 4 lecture courses.

Besides which, I object to the blanket assumption that lecture is somehow an intrinsically bad form. The lecture is a time-honored, efficient, and often inspiring means of organizing and communicating material from an expert to a novice -- or from an expert to a colleague.....

And with that, I see I've veered off-topic.

A school would play heck getting me to pay attention to 6 hours of lecture a day, that's for sure. I don't have the focus.

Good thing no school I attended ever tried it.

Back to K-12. My intended topic is not to ask: Do students listen to lecture? I'm sure they do.

My intended topic is to ask: Do students in K-12 spend 6 hours a day moving in unison from classroom to classroom where they listen to 50-to 90-minute lectures?

(And, if they do, my follow-up question is: how is that possible?)

People seem to think "explicit instruction" means lecture, which is not remotely the case.

See, e.g.:
Barak Rosenshine, Five Meanings of Direct Instruction and Principles of Instruction; and Doug Lemov, Teach Like a Champion.

Not only does "explicit instruction" not mean "lecture," it means almost the opposite. I recall watching a professional development video on direct instruction a few years back (no longer available online, it appears) in which the presenter gave teachers an explicit figure for the number of questions they were advised to ask per each 20 minute segment of class time.

It was a lot.


OK, here we go. The Use of Questions in Teaching, 1970:
Certainly teachers ask many questions during an average school day. A half-century ago, Stevens (1912) estimated that four-fifths of school time was occupied with question-and-answer recitations. Stevens found that a sample of high-school teachers asked a mean number of 395 questions per day. High frequencies of question use by teachers were also found in recent investigations: 10 primary-grade teachers asked an average of 348 questions each during a school day (Floyd, 1960); 12 elementary-school teachers asked an average of 180 questions each in a science lesson (Moyer, 1965); and 14 fifth-grade teachers asked an average of 64 questions each in a 30-minute social studies lesson (Schreiber, 1967). Furthermore, students are exposed to many questions in their textbooks and on examinations. [emphasis added] 
This is what everyone on the planet (our current planet, I mean) seems to have forgotten: old-time teaching wasn't about teachers standing on a stage delivering a lecture for 50 or 90 minutes.

How could it have been?

How would that work in a one-room schoolhouse?

Old-time teaching, as far as I can tell, was highly interactive and fundamentally social. Probably most effective teaching is fundamentally social; at least, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it is.

And that's the problem with trying to learn math from a math video. It's lonely!

I'm pretty sure that reforms whose purpose is to topple straw men are the wrong reforms.

revenge of the nerds, part 2

This is for all you parents out there who have tried to forced your teenage kids to watch Khan videos to figure out their homework.

revenge of the nerds

Had never heard of this video and am guffawing as I watch. I LOLLed, literally, when I reached the part where one of the math guys says Salman Khan "really ought to do a handwriting video, too."

Karim Kai Ani (Khan Academy: The Hype and the Reality) says Khan replaced the video, but quotes Khan's reaction as: “It’s kind of weird...when people are nitpicking about multiplying negative numbers.”

Question: Why is Salman Khan a rock star?


Because that's what he is. He was the keynote at this year's so-called Celebration of Teaching and Learning, and he was a rock star. They had to post guards outside the room where he gave his workshop to keep the crowds out.

I blame the multi-verse.

Monday, October 1, 2012

writing is thinking, part 2

I was talking to my friend R., an attorney, about 'Writing is thinking.'

She says, Absolutely, writing is thinking: if you can't explain something in writing, you don't understand it.

I believe that myself* and have experienced it many times. For me, writing is a diagnostic. When I discover that I can't put a concept or argument into words, I realize that I don't understand the concept. I don't know what I'm talking about, literally.

But I didn't know that going in.

* For verbal disciplines -- this idea has been wildly over-generalized to math.


I'm thinking of starting a new blog called Rolling Calamity.

A spin-off.

the rules

At breakfast: Ed's talking about last night's game (Eagles v. Giants). Ed says the refs -- the regular refs, who are back on the job -- were making calls the replacement refs didn't, and the game was a thriller as a result.

What's been interesting about the replacement ref situation, to me, is the fact that the whole game of football -- almost the whole enterprise of professional football -- seemed to pretty much fell apart the instant the real refs left the field and the rules of football were being unpredictably observed and enforced. This episode has been an object lesson in the foundational importance rules: without the rules, you don't have a game.

Of course we all know that at some level, but ... we don't know the way we should. At least, I don't, or didn't. I was pretty gobsmacked by the misery of the fans over the past month.

Ed's reading to me now: 'when the officials walked onto the field they received a rousing standing ovation.'

Ed says: the rules have to be enforced, and they have to be enforced strongly.

It's the same thing with writing.

You need the "rules" -- and you need "strong' rules: rules teachers and students take seriously.

Writing without "rules" isn't writing.

And writing with only the faintest notion of what the rules are is bad writing.

and see:
American has survived the NFL's replacement refs
NFL officials receive loud cheers in first night back
David Foster Wallace on the seamy underbelly
speaking of grammar to enhance and enrich writing

Sunday, September 30, 2012

David Foster Wallace on the seamy underbelly (and The Writing Revolution)

Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a nearly hanging-chad scale? For instance, did you know that some modem dictionaries are notoriously liberal and others notoriously conservative, and that certain conservative dictionaries were actually conceived and designed as corrective responses to the "corruption"and "permissiveness" of certain liberal dictionaries? That the oligarchic device of having a special "Distinguished Usage Panel of outstanding professional speakers and writers" is an attempted, compromise between the forces of egalitarianism and traditionalism in English, but that most linguistic liberals dismiss the Usage Panel as mere sham populism!

Did you know that U.S. lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?
Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage by David Foster Wallace | Harper's Magazine | April 2001
I was talking to Ed about this last night: my answer is, No I did not know (until just a couple of months ago) that U.S. lexicography had a seamy underbelly, and I am semi-sorry to learn that it does.*

"Semi-sorry" because, in theory, I think discord and debate are good things in a democracy (and in a discipline). But "sorry" because I don't agree with the terms of the debate.

Scratch that. It's not that I don't agree with the terms of the debate. (The debate being: prescriptivist v. descriptivist.) It's that I don't relate to the terms of the debate. And I am a professional writer. I live by words (sentences and paragraphs, actually); I eat, breathe, and sleep words; I am an obsessive reader....

And I don't relate.

I don't care about prescriptivist, and I don't care about descriptivist. Not as battle stations in a shooting war. Not as anything, really. Where expository writing is concerned, I don't care about prescriptivist/descriptivist because prescriptivist/descriptivist is the wrong way to order the universe.

Which brings me back to the Atlantic piece:
The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children do not have to “catch” a single thing. They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own. It is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. “I prefer recipe,” Hochman says, “but formula? Yes! Okay!”

Hochman, 75, has chin-length blond hair and big features. Her voice, usually gentle, rises almost to a shout when she talks about poor writing instruction. “The thing is, kids need a formula, at least at first, because what we are asking them to do is very difficult. So God, let’s stop acting like they should just know how to do it. Give them a formula! Later, when they understand the rules of good writing, they can figure out how to break them.”
I don't get this!

If a rule is really a rule, why would you break it?

Why would you write "a white small house" instead of "a small white house" just because you've mastered the rule that says size comes before color?

You wouldn't.

Good expository prose isn't fundamentally about breaking the rules. I'd put money on it Ms. Hochman doesn't encourage a lot of expository rule-breaking in her students; I'd also put money on it Ms. Hochman is friendlier to "1950s drill and kill" than she's willing to admit.** At least, I hope she is.

Poetry and fiction may depend importantly upon rule-breaking. (I don't know.) But expository writing does not.

So why do we chronically have to come back to solemn invocations of "1950s" drill and kill accompanied by the inevitable assurance that, Don't worry, students who are actually being taught to write will get to 'break the rules' later on?

Answer: we chronically have to come back to solemn invocations of 1950s drill and kill, and to assurances that students will get to break the rules later on, because the terms of the debate are wrong.

Expository writing is not properly understood as a tension between prescriptivism (following the rules) and descriptivism (ignoring the rules, breaking the rules, and/or believing that the rules are whatever everyone happens to be doing now, whether they're any good at doing what they're doing or not).

Expository writing is properly understood as a practice akin to tennis, or to music. The "rules," so-called, aren't rules at all; they are techniques. Time-honored techniques that exist because they work.

Take the rule about putting a topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph. Putting a topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph; having a topic sentence in the first place; writing in paragraphs at all: these are techniques for thinking, communicating, and persuading that were invented by humans and,  subsequently, imitated by other humans because they work. A topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph helps you communicate, helps you persuade, and probably helps you think as well.

In short, putting a topic sentence at the beginning of a paragraph is the most effective mode of expository paragraph writing we've come up with to date. If and when somebody else comes up with a better way to think, communicate, and persuade in writing, a new rule will be born, and the topic-sentence-at-the-beginning-of-a-paragraph rule will cease to exist.

Part 2. Writing instruction, in this country, is a rolling calamity.*** One reason why it's a rolling calamity, I'm convinced, is that people are fighting about the wrong thing. Good writing isn't about following the rules AND good writing isn't about breaking the rules, ignoring the rules, or not knowing any rules in the first place. Good writing isn't about rules.

Good writing is about technique.

Back to the topic sentence. The writers who invented the topic sentence didn't invent a rule. In fact, the writers who invented the topic sentence didn't invent the topic sentence. Not consciously. They didn't have a name for the new sentence they were using. (At least, I don't think they did.) They developed the topic sentence through trial and error, and when they saw how well it worked they used it more and more often until the topic sentence became an established and favored technique.

Other people - teachers? scholars? - observed what writers were doing, characterized it in formal terms, and gave it a name: topic sentence. That was the moment the topic sentence became a 'rule': the moment it was observed, described, and named. But it's not a rule in the prescriptivist/descriptivist sense of the word 'rule.' The Topic Sentence 'rule' is an empirical observation of the way actual writers actually write. Actual writers (tend to) put topic sentences at the beginning of their paragraphs.**** Hence the rule. The prescriptivist rule is a descriptivist description.

The proper goal of teaching expository writing in school, as every parent and taxpayer understands, is to teach effective expository writing, same as teaching tennis or how to play the piano. In tennis and piano, no one teaches "rules" they don't believe in -- no one teaches "rules" at all. Tennis instructors don't teach students a decent groundstroke while assuring parents and the broader public that: Don't worry, they can forget about their groundstroke down the line. A good tennis player never forgets about his groundstroke. A good tennis player practices his groundstroke and makes it better. Ditto good writers. A good writer doesn't forget about topic sentences once s/he knows how to write one. A good writer writes better topic sentences.

(Or, yes, maybe a good writer plays with the form. Maybe a good writer writes a two-part topic sentence using two sentences, not one, or maybe s/he divides a paragraph into 3 or 4 short, one-sentence paragraphs, with just the one topic sentence up at the top of the sequence. These are variations on a theme, serving the same purpose: effective communication, persuasion, and thought achieved via a topic sentence.)

Here is my frustration, reading an otherwise invaluable articles like Peg Tyre's The Writing Revolution.

I don't care what Lucy Calkins thinks about Judith Hochman.

I want to know what the people at Morningside think about Judith Hochman. I want to know what the people at Well-Trained Mind think. I want to know what Stanley Fish thinks.

I want to hear an argument and a debate between and among the practitioners of effective writing instruction that explicitly teaches effective writing.

And I don't want to hear another word about rules.

The rules aren't rules.

The rules are techniques.

* Ed did not know that prescriptivists and descriptivists exist until last night. Lucky him.
** I didn't notice any instances of creative rule-breaking in "The Writing Revolution."
*** Homage to Peggy Noonan.
**** I think it's possible the Topic Sentence rule is changing with the shift to shorter paragraphs. It's a possibility.