Spin Meisters, Dept.

What with the TIMSS results being released showing slight improvement in students of 4th and 8th grades in the US, the explanations and credit-taking will be coming fast and furious. And leading the pack is the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM):

“The TIMSS results for fourth- and eighth-graders are encouraging because we are seeing elementary and middle school students continue to show long-term growth,” said National Council of Teachers of Mathematics President Matt Larson. “This may reflect an increased focus on mathematics in the early grades and could be a longer-term effect of standards reform and the implementation of research-informed instructional practices in more schools.”

Left undefined in this statement is “research-informed instructional practices”. There are a lot of those. Some of them aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Others are better. Are they talking about papers by Sweller, Kirschner and Clark who maintain that minimally guided discovery doesn’t work, and who advocate direct instruction and worked examples? Or are they more in the Jo Boaler direction?

Also, to what extent has tutoring/learning center instruction played a role–a question yet to be addressed but becomes increasingly important as the numbers of these establishments goes up.

Watch this space for further spin; I’m sure there will be some.

Students vs Learners, Dept.

I’ve always been irritated by the term “learner” when the word “student” , in my opinion, would do just fine. I brought this up on Twitter once and received a sharp retort from someone who said “learner” is used in psychology. And knowing that I was firmly in the camp of Kirschner, the Dutch education professor who holds that minimally guided discovery learning does not work, said “Kirschner uses the term”.

So I checked with Kirschner, and indeed he does use the term and told me the following:

“I use “learner” as I do work in formal, informal and nonformal areas. A student is – by definition – a learner in a formal setting. There is a curriculum, there is an intention to learn (we hope) and it is closed with a recognized diploma. In informal settings, the first two are often the case, but the third is not the case. In nonformal (think of a museum, reading the paper) none of the three. As a result, ‘student’ is too specific. That’s often why I also choose instructor above teacher. In Dutch ‘lerende’ en ‘leerkracht’.”

This all makes sense and I have no disagreement with what Prof. Kirschner wrote. My objection to the word “learner” in education dialogues, however, still stands because the language is hijacked to carry with it the ideological baggage of the education progressives and reformers. A TEDx talk by math education professor David Coffey does a better job illustrating this. In his talk, Coffey distinguishes between the two by stating that a “student” relies on the teacher “teaching by telling” rather than constructing his or her own knowledge, is concerned with testing, and holds that the traditional model of teaching is a “maintain” approach, rather than a “sustainable” one, to throw further jargon onto the educational fire.

Group work and project-based learning is key. If you don’t learn from the context of a project, then you are simply memorizing and obtaining a shallow version of knowledge rather than “deep understanding”. The word “learner”, when used in the educationist arena carries with it the typical mischaracterizations of traditional teaching, and promotes the PBL, student-centered, inquiry-based model as superior in every regard.

Having said all that, I hasten to add that there are reform-minded teachers who do an excellent job teaching and maintain a proper and effective balance between traditional and reform modes. But I’m reminded of what math teacher (and my mentor) Vern Williams has said about this:

“I have always stated that if a reform minded teacher produces competent, intellectually passionate students, they will absolutely escape any criticism on my part. But the opposite seems never to occur. Regardless of stellar results, the traditional teacher will always be criticized for being a self centered sage on the stage, controlling student learning and running a draconian classroom. Their students may be the happiest most accomplished students of all time but the teacher will never be good and pure until they cross over to the reform side.”

All that said, I will continue to use the word students when I mean students.

Mindsets for Understanding Mindsets, Dept.

I first heard the word “mindset” in a human behavior course when I was a junior in college and it was one of those words that I thought explained everything.  In the intervening years, I’ve seen that the word is indeed used to explain just about everything–most recently of course is the use of it in terms of “growth mindsets”.  I recently saw this in a newsletter from U of Michigan’s ed school at their Flint campus:

Leading the program are experienced professional math educators with doctoral degrees who will teach proven, research-based strategies that graduate students can use in their classrooms to help young children develop mathematical mindsets that build on the basics. Coursework also deeply examines topics in early childhood and elementary mathematics, such as numeracy, matching, patterns, spatial relationships, additive reasoning, geometry, multiplicative reasoning, and fractions.

Program leaders point out that math teaching and learning strategies have modernized away from the tedious memorization techniques and high-pressure, timed assignments that restrict opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes and to conceptualize math problems in visual and other ways.

“Research shows that when children have an opportunity to learn from their math mistakes, they develop a growth mindset,” said UM-Flint education assistant professor Elizabeth Cunningham. “Being able to make sense of number combinations in flexible ways and to approach numbers in visual ways helps to erase some of the fear that comes with learning math.”

First of all, it’s good that these instructors have doctoral degrees; lends more credibility to the statements that follow–particularly since they will teach “research-based” strategies.  I’m glad that they are looking to help children develop mathematical mindsets that build on the basics.  I just hope they teach the basics upon which such mindsets can be built.

I have my doubts that this is happening when I read that we are “modernizing” away from “tedious” memorization techniques and “high-pressure” timed assignments.  Apparently these restrict opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes.

The passage makes it sound as if in the past, traditionally-based math was never taught by making sense of number combinations in ways other than simply memorizing the facts, or that it neglects visual approaches.  Of course, the trend now is to rely more than ever on the sense-making, visual approaches to the detriment of any kind of memorization.

I’m also curious about what research they are alluding to when they say “research shows” but I think I can guess.

Gift ideas

With Black Friday coming up, you don’t want to be left out when these classics are sold out.  Special discounts apply for a limited time.  Don’t miss out.  For entrepeneurs, buy at these low rates and then upsell them to unsuspecting buyers! Lots of opportunities here!

“Math Education in the US: Still Crazy After All These Years”  Available here.  Enter discount code L34EPBQC when prompted to get $2.00 off (excluding shipping).

“Confessions of a 21st Century Math Teacher”  (Soon to be made into a major motion picture with either Sean Penn or Jeff Goldblum playing the author).  Available here.  Enter discount code  66W2GSVK when prompted to get $3.00 off (excluding shipping).
Ideal gifts for friends or enemies of education.  Order your copies now, while supplies last.

And the classic that started it all: “Letters from John Dewey/Letters from Huck Finn”: Available here.  Enter discount code XLNPXUZR when prompted to get $4.22 off (excluding shipping).

Traditional Math Doesn’t Work, Except When It Does, Dept.


Mastery Schools in the Philadelphia area specializes in “turnaround schools”. As the article states: “Mastery doesn’t start new schools. Rather it takes over struggling ones from the Philadelphia School District and tries to revive them.”

It had adopted a “no excuses” model for schools, relying on strict behavior rules; also it adopted a procedural, direct-instruction mode for teaching math and other subjects. The results were spikes in state test scores upon the initial turn-around, only to find that scores plateaued after a few years. They concluded that perhaps they should try a more conceptual approach to teaching math such as the reformers like to see. The results were disastrous.

After year one of this change, Mastery’s test scores plummeted. The same was true at schools across the state — the new batch of tests was expected to be more difficult than their predecessors. Mastery’s braintrust noticed, however, that their math scores seemed to drop further than most.

The network’s leaders didn’t panic. They’d already accounted for some growing pains during this organization-wide pivot. Plus, there were all sorts of positive indicators in terms of student retainment, discipline trends, and teacher satisfaction.

Then the second year of test scores came out this summer.  Little changed. Mastery schools were still, on the whole, performing worse than they had prior to the shift away from “no excuses.” The pattern was especially obvious in mathematics.

So they went back to a combination of conceptual and procedural, with the emphasis on procedural. Scores went back up. Of note is this particular quote:

” “Mastery has essentially shifted to a “what works” model. If students can grasp the conceptual knowledge, great. If they can’t or if they come to Mastery so far behind they need a crash course, teachers are free to lean on the “skills and procedures” approach.

” “We had swung one way. And then we were swinging another way. And now we were trying to find that balance in instruction,” said Holmes, the principal at Clymer. “

Refomers will undoubtedly shrug their shoulders and say “It’s because they were relying too much on procedures before and when they switched to the conceptual method they probably weren’t doing it right.

Whatever gets you through the night, I suppose.

Finland, Dept.


Whatever Finland does apparently, is the right thing because they’re always touted as number 1 in education internationally, no matter whether it’s true or not. And I can’t tell what’s true anymore.

But the latest in “Finland does this, so maybe it’s time we tried it…” is the elimination of school subjects because, you know, disciplines are so twentieth century, factory model, and all the rest. Even though subjects have emerged as disciplines for centuries. The 21st century is the end of all that came before, it seems.

“Finnish officials want to remove school subjects from the curriculum. There will no longer be any classes in physics, math, literature, history, or geography.

The head of the Department of Education in Helsinki, Marjo Kyllonen, explained the changes:

“There are schools that are teaching in the old-fashioned way which was of benefit in the beginning of the 1900s — but the needs are not the same, and we need something fit for the 21st century. Instead of individual subjects, students will study events and phenomena in an interdisciplinary format. For example, the Second World War will be examined from the perspective of history, geography, and math. And by taking the course ”Working in a Cafe,” students will absorb a whole body of knowledge about the English language, economics, and communication skills.”

Well, now maybe I’ve been too harsh. After reading this it all makes sense. Of course “Working in a Cafe” can convey lots of information about analytic geometry, about conic sections, congruence, logarithms, exponential forms, factoring, quadratic equations, and of course, World War II.

But wait–this is for senior/16 year old students. That makes it all different now doesn’t it?

“This system will be introduced for senior students, beginning at the age of 16. The general idea is that the students ought to choose for themselves which topic or phenomenon they want to study, bearing in mind their ambitions for the future and their capabilities. In this way, no student will have to pass through an entire course on physics or chemistry while all the time thinking to themselves “What do I need to know this for?”

Right, now they won’t ask that question because they won’t teach the topics that they would need if they indeed wanted to go into a STEM career. And who wants STEM anyway? Let’s go with a Summerhillian vision and everyone can be a communications major.

And no article disavowing traditional teaching techniques would be complete without this:

“The traditional format of teacher-pupil communication is also going to change. Students will no longer sit behind school desks and wait anxiously to be called upon to answer a question. Instead, they will work together in small groups to discuss problems.”

And how has that worked out for the last 25+ years?

PBL, Dept.

Tom Bennett, head of ResearchED and ed-behavior czar in UK, nails it in his latest essay, this one on the “effectiveness” of Project Based Learning.

Rather than learn a subject through the clearly bonkers route of ‘lessons about it’, delivered by a ‘subject specialist’ in an incremental way, students are invited/ empowered/ inspired/ hugged to death to answer a question through self-guided investigation, to create a ‘product’ that could be ‘exhibited.’ It was recommended that this would take 20% -50% of the entire curriculum for one year. Fortunately we have loads of time to spare for this kind of thing in year 7. Wait”

“My experience tells me that these kinds of educational approaches aren’t without value, but frequently work best with the most able, independent and informed students. Those struggling already, behind in content knowledge, dealing with challenging habits, fall further back than they otherwise would in a more structured environment. And if we’re designing schools and syllabus for the real word, that means teaching everyone well, not just a fraction of the lucky sperm club. So until we start finding out that PBL miraculously adds value to the school experience rather than robbing it, I’d give it five minutes if I were you.”

Unfortunately, this advice will fall on deaf ears as schools continue to promote PBL. One compromise is to have a STEAM class that focuses on projects, without it taking up time in classes like math, English, and science.   It’s just when the “maker-space” philosophy invades classrooms that I start to notice since it takes up valuable instructional time (which is already taken up by  assemblies, field trips, volleyball tournaments and one “minimum day” per week so staff can be apprised of the wonders of Common Core and authentic testing and other edu-fads).  And speaking of “maker spaces”, why has this word popped up to replace “art projects”. I’m beginning to hate the phrase almost as much as the phrase “share out”.