The truth and the excuse, Dept.

The national lock-down has resulted in many teachers resorting to videos, and Zoom meetings. In either case, the principle means of teaching appears to be explicit and whole class instruction.

Students saddled with math curricula that do not have a textbook and rely on group work/collaboration, may actually be enjoying a benefit to the more “traditional” form of instruction.  This experience gives us a rare opportunity to see the results of a nationwide forcing of direct/explicit instruction.

Any benefits observed, however, will likely be discounted when we get back to the more-or-less normal classroom; i.e., with students and teacher present in one place. I’m willing to bet good money that the edu-party-line will then be: “Yes, there was some increase in performance as measured by traditional testing methods, but there was a decrease in ‘deeper understanding’. ”

Then there will be those who point to any successes/improvements during this period as evidence that flipped classrooms are the way to go.

Any takers?


Nothing to See Here, Dept.

It was just a matter of time before someone would say “Look, the shut-down schools show there’s a better way to teach math. Kids can just Google things after all, and they do, so let’s make things more interesting and relevant and …” etc etc.
This article does just that, saying that now it’s obvious that traditional math is anachronistic and we need a better approach.
Nothing to see here folks.  Move on.

Say it enough times and it becomes the truth, Dept.

There are certain narratives in education that are repeated so many times, that they become viewed as the absolute truth.  The idea of “learning styles” comes to mind. Although articles and papers have been written debunking the idea of learning styles, the idea persists in ed schools and in other fora.  I hear it at my school when, for example, a teacher will say that some student is a “visual learner” and thus finds listening to the teacher on a video to be disconcerting.  This is finished up with “Too much ‘teacher talk’ and not enough guidance.”

This last I can almost buy, because I believe students do need guidance, particularly in the form of direct and explicit instruction.  How you do this without talking, however, remains a mystery.

One of the many other myths is the one about “productive struggle”.  I saw this in an article about the difficulties of distance learning.

“Sometimes when you think, ‘oh my kid’s not getting it, they are having a hard time, they aren’t getting to the answer’, you might even know the answer, but they can’t make that connection and that’s okay because that’s what we call productive struggle,” Musick said. “We want them to struggle because when they are struggling, that’s when they are learning the most.” 

A friend of mine wrote me recently about his “struggles” to learn about web programming.  He writes:

Good teaching makes learning easier, not harder with more struggle. Students will struggle plenty with regular textbook problem sets even if you do everything possible to make learning easy.  This email comes after spending a good long time online trying to (and still trying to) understand what Node.js is and how it’s installed and used to simulate client-server programming. I have a master’s degree in computer engineering and taught computer science for years. I still don’t get it. Creating struggle is just an excuse for really bad teaching.

That’s the part you don’t read about in newspaper articles. If you do, someone will point out that that’s merely an opinion of what the person thinks is true. But the person provides no cites to studies, no evidence to support what is being said.

Right.  Say that enough times and people believe that as well.

The Math Zombie Excuse


From an article about the Russian Math School:

“Meanwhile, Hilary Kreisberg, director of the Center for Math Achievement at Lesley University and a former fifth-grade teacher turned math coach, says her experiences with RSM students have led her to question the claim that Russian Math focuses more on developing a deep understanding of math instead of memorization. In fact, she has seen the opposite. “From what I’ve seen, they come in well above their grade-level standards in terms of memorization, but not in terms of content understanding,” she says. “Many of them very quickly get to an answer or can compute in a fast way, but they can’t necessarily explain to me what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.” And explanations, she says, are a critical component of mathematics. “In public school teaching, we are very strictly taught that the goal is not to accelerate,” Kreisberg says. “The goal is not to extend their thinking into another grade level, but to go deeper with the current grade-level standards because there’s always more you could learn about a topic.” “

There is no discussion in the article, or from the experts proclaiming math zombie-ism, of levels of understanding and how that figures into the novice/expert spectrum. The general excuse given for programs like RSM that are successful is “Well the kids are good at memorizing procedures but there is no deeper understanding.” The unanswered question is how deep is the understanding of the students who are supposedly benefiting from the “deeper understanding” approach the math reformers seem to think works so well? More to the point, how many of those in the “deeper understanding” category have to take remedial math in college compared to those from the RSM program?

And why is it that the US is lagging behind other nations (who used traditional techniques or those used by RSM) with all the “deeper understanding” the US students supposedly have? In articles I’ve read about reform methods, a common answer is “We’re just not doing reform math correctly.”  (See in particular this article, which received criticism for its inaccuracies.)

These are questions that need further delving. In my opinion, what passes for “deeper understanding” in the educationists’ realm, frequently amounts to “rote understanding.”