Believe I’ll Pass, Thanks.

“Linked In” is not only famous for reminding me to congratulate people I barely know on work anniversaries at firms doing nebulous things, but also for exciting job offers.  I recently received a message offering me an opportunity to be “paid well in the future”.

Honored that they thought of me, but I believe I’ll pass.  Here’s the letter:

This is an invitation. You have been carefully chosen to be part of a special project. My name is Shane Mesa and I am the President of a cloud-based K-12 school for kids and adults. There is a lot of work to be done but I believe it all starts with curriculum.

I am looking for brilliant teachers who are to be paid well in the future. For now, I need your help in developing a simple curriculum in your field of mastery. There will be some required classes in this program but we will be focusing on the student’s strengths rather than pulling them in all academic directions, setting them up for failure.

My mission (like many others) is to create a better future for our children and our country. Eventually we will be building schools around the world but we are starting small. There is monetary incentive for you to join this cause. I only ask for your faith in this project. They say the sky is the limit but the truth is; they aren’t looking high enough!

If this spikes your curiosity, please write, call or email me for more info. Thank you for reading!


Count the Tropes, Dept.

This article about a “math festival” held at an elementary school contains all the usual tropes about what math education is supposed to be about. I almost stopped reading here, but like being stuck in a traffic jam because of an accident, I found myself staring at the gory site at the side of the road.

A dozen parents gathered around veteran math educator Leanna Baker, moments before students show up for what is billed as a math “festival” for students at Allendale Elementary School in Oakland. “Do your best not to give them an answer,” Baker told the dozen parent volunteers about how best to help the transitional kindergarten to fifth grade students participating in math activities arranged for that day. “We want them to be problem solvers.”

The tropes of “to problem solve” and “problem solvers” have emerged as the latest shiny new thing over the past several decades.  As if math was never about teaching students how to solve problems. In the past, there was instruction given with worked examples on how to solve problems, but now it’s all about transfer of prior knowledge to new situations.  If a kid can’t do that, then it is generally assumed that (a) the teacher is teaching it wrong or (b) the parents aren’t doing enough at home. (Translation of latter statement: Parents aren’t teaching their kids what isn’t being taught at school).  Of course blaming it on the student is an option too but thanks to Jo Boaler and others of her ilk, saying a child is “not a math person” is a no-no.  (Not that that stops anyone; it’s just said in other ways.)

Then of course there’s the “I wish I learned it this way when I was in school” trope:

It began with a math night at single school, which later expanded to eight elementary schools. Zaragoza said she started math nights because “families didn’t understand what (teachers) were doing and that was causing a disconnect” between schools and families when it came to math instruction. “Once parents understand what we’re doing and what is happening you’ll hear them say ‘why didn’t someone teach me this way ?’ or ‘why didn’t I know this before?’”

Decades of experience with math provides adults a different view of the subject than kids have who are going through it for the first time.  The adults who benefitted from the methods now held in disdain are being subtly programmed to reject such methods as injurious and inadequate–a view reinforced by Alan Schoenfeld, who has been vocal for many years against the traditional mode of math education:

“We lose so many kids in elementary school because they get convinced math isn’t for them,” said UC Berkeley professor Alan Schoenfeld, a leading expert in early math education. “I’ve seen some really engaged kindergartners get to fourth grade and just get turned off from math because it’s boring or it’s taught in a way that makes them think it’s boring.”

And of course, no story like this would be complete without the “rich task” trope:

“One of the goals (of math nights) is to show early learning teachers and parents just how easy it is to provide really rich mathematical experiences,” she said.

For more about “rich tasks” see this. Then hire a tutor for your child.

“Rich Tasks” defined

Facilitator of Professional Development course answers my question of “What is a rich task?”

“It’s a problem that has multiple entry points and has various levels of cognitive demands.  Every student can be successful on at least part of it.”

My translation:  A one-off, not generalizable, ill-posed, open-ended problem which can be answered in many ways.  Thought to gauge understanding, as opposed to traditional “only one right answer” problems that are viewed as helping only a few students–students who are viewed as “getting it” no matter what.

My Innermost Circle of Hell


I hate a staffroom with prickles in it. I hate the freedom to choose any cup in the staffroom cupboard that is in reality an elaborate but secret system of cup choice only hinted at by the odd, fleeting grimace and veiled umbrage at my choice of cup. I hate – but hate – the sinking feeling (pants already long around ankles and minutes before the bell chimes for my next lesson) as my hand reaches deeper into the toilet roll holder and my fingertips frantically scrape around the cardboard roll – around and around and around, as if one, two, three turns of the screw will begin to set in train a miraculous process of the regeneration of the now nonexistent toilet paper.

Oh, but I reserve a special, most sadistic circle of Hell for the poorly-made education resource. I’m not shy to admit that I use textbooks in…

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Interviews I never finished reading, Dept.

This one is from a blog called “Cool Cat Teacher” that ostensibly presents hip, new, ideas about education as a refutation of the stuffy old traditional methods that people have claimed “never worked”, or if they did, “only for a few people.”

This particular blurb is an interview with a history teacher called Keith “Hip” Hughes, who has some ideas about “flipping the classroom”.

The basic idea is to try to reduce the amount of time you’re talking to kids from the front of the room. I think sometimes we have this illusion that the kids are learning in the space between our mouths and their ears, and I’m not sure how much that might be happening. So “flipping” is saying, “Let’s have the kids get the content somewhere other than the classroom.” Many times, that could be a reader, but many times it could be a really great video that explains a concept that you would normally be explaining in front of the room. You’re probably still going to have to review it. But the idea is to free up time in your class so kids that are working through skill-based activities that might in the past have been done as homework. Now (those) can be doing that in class with your facilitation.  The next step is designing projects and really having kids doing authentic inquiry-based awesome stuff in your classroom, using the content.

First of all, I’m a traditional based teacher and if I facilitate, I do so using direct instruction methods followed with questions as has been done in the past.  For centuries actually.  Effectively, I might also add.

Second of all, I make sure to leave enough time in my class for students to get started on the “skill-based” activities known as homework so they can ask questions about it in class, rather than going home and not knowing how to do it.

Third, videos only go so far. Yes, you can rewind and replay as much as you want, but if you didn’t get something the first time, hearing the same explanation again without clarification isn’t going to help too much.  And if they’re that sold on doing learning at home rather than at school, have them read the textbook as preparation for the next lesson as is done in many university classes. It teaches them how to read a textbook rather than rely on videos and come to class with questions for the teacher.  Oops, I forgot. Textbooks are bad. Never mind!

Biting the Hand that Fed You, Dept.

Keith Devlin, outspoken spokesperson (known as “the math guy” on NPR) on mathematics and who apparently has never backed down from a stated position, has this to say in a column written originally in 2011 and revised in 2014:

“As a nation, we should stop the current suicidal cry to turn back the clock to a form of math teaching that did no one any good and which those of us who became professional mathematicians first had to unlearn, and focus on making good, practical, sensible use of centuries old teaching tools (such as word problems) to produce a generation well equipped for life in the Twenty-First Century.”

He is not the only one to make such statement. What is more alarming than the statement itself is how often such statement is taken as truth and rarely if ever challenged.  The older forms of math teaching did no one any good? Really? Including him? Oh, he’s got that covered.  People like him (a professional mathematician) had to unlearn what he learned in his classes.  The word problems that he learned from did him no good whatsoever and he had to unlearn the problem solving techniques?

I get tired of the canard that “it never did anyone any good” particularly as uttered by those who, despite earnest claims with no evidence to support them, benefited from what they feel harmed many.  The ongoing mischaracterization of traditional math as “mindless computing” needs to be challenged.  Take a look at the students who go on into STEM majors and careers and the many problems they solved at home. Yes, they took on challenging problems, but also the very problems he says do not promote thinking and are mechanical and non-thinking in nature.  The “worked example” effect has its merits despite the claims of professional mathematicians who climbed the ladder and then kicked it down after they reached their levels of success, claiming that the ladder never did anyone any good.

Well, yes, but, Dept.

From Madison, Wisconsin comes this report about yet another parent math night, this time to introduce parents to the new math curriculum Bridges in Mathematics.  The math night consisted of math games that were actually used as part of the new curriculum so that the kids could guide their parents through them

Emerson teachers were on hand to speak with parents about the lessons and provide guidance as needed. Maria Cavicchio, a kindergarten teacher at Emerson, said students build on concepts taught in games like Spill Five Beans throughout the year. Although Hannah used the game to learn about number recognition, number writing and counting, the game also teaches the fundamentals of addition, subtraction and probability. “They do these sorts of games and they learn (the concepts,)” she said. “It’s not rote memorization, students really like (the activities) and learning is more meaningful.”

Yes, God forbid anyone memorize anything; that would be rote and would eclipse any “understanding”. Because math is about learning to problem solve (as opposed to learning how to solve problems–sorry for the digression but I still fail to understand how problem solve became an infinitive verb with a life of its own) and of course “explain your answer.”  Everyone knows if you can’t explain your answer, you lack understanding. I mean everyone:

“(Bridges) focuses on developing the students’ understanding of math concepts,” Davis said. “It is not about how students can memorize certain skills, but really around their ability to problem solve and look at math in more complex ways…and explain their reasoning to their teachers and peers.”

Never mind that understanding is many layered and true understanding can ONLY be built on mastery of skills. As my friend and frequent commenter here, SteveH, has said:

“If students can do problems without words, that is meaningless and rote? It’s all rubbish. There are too many skills to learn and understanding first is clearly not necessary or sufficient. However, true understanding is not possible without mastery of skills. Conceptual understanding (what they are talking about) is at best only the motivating baby steps of proper understanding.”


Shut the Hell Up, Dept.

Another in a long line of stories about how parents need to be taught the inefficient, non-standard methods for simple math, so they can help their children “understand” .  And of course no such story would be complete without this trope of a quote:

“The important thing is explaining how you know what you know,” Timm told the class. That’s what he wants their kids to leave school with — a deeper understanding of math, beyond rote memorization.

It might be nice to interpret Common Core in an alternative way; the one that allows standard algorithms to be taught prior to 4th grade.  The one that allows students to gain proficiency in the (shudder) procedure before being shown alternative methods that then serve to spotlight the underlying concepts.  The way it used to be done when Brownell, (reformer of his day in the 40’s through 60’s and receives steady praise from today’s reformers including Alfie Kohn) wrote the textbooks that I used.  Distinguishing main dish from side dish would be such a welcome change.

It might also be nice to not require “explanations” from K-6 students

Maybe they wouldn’t need to have parents make up the slack–or have students enrolled in learning centers.

Love Notes of the Past, Dept.

This harkens back to the days when I was writing letters about ed school under the name John Dewey on a blog called Edspresso.  (These letters were compiled in a book along with another set of letters I wrote on the blog Out in Left Field under the name Huck Finn.  Info on the book is here.  )

This particular comment ranks up there for odd reasons I can’t quite put my finger on:

Your mission here, Mr. Dewey, is becoming painfully clear (and sad)–parrot the lines you see in the so-called anti-establishment blogs, and voila, you’re a revolutionary.

Yet one important characteristic separates your meandering missives from those sites who set themselves against the status quo . . .

They at least try to know what they’re talking about.



What Am I Missing Here, Dept.

I was going to put this in the category of articles I never finished reading, but I did read it, and re-read the following paragraph several times in a vain effort for it to make sense:

“Today, much of the public and private school curriculum is based on what is known as “Singapore Math” and, specifically, the so-called “number sense” — which makes physical associations between numbers and, for instance, toys that a child handles while counting. And while Singapore Math is a great starting point, it may not be enough in the forms currently taught in the schools. To put it plainly, our students need more rigorous training. After all, students from Mainland China rule the Math departments at the top U.S. universities today, not Singaporeans, and definitely not Americans.”

First of all I’m not aware that the techniques used in Singapore’s math programs are the dominant form of math education in the US. Yes, some programs borrow the bar diagram technique for solving problems and use it occasionally, and then point to it as evidence that “Look, we’re using Singapore’s techniques.  But most textbooks do not use Singapore’s full techniques, at least not in any consistent fashion. And does she really think that the statement that China rules the math departments in US universities but not Singapore stands as proof that Singapore’s methods are inferior to China’s?  Singapore’s population is a lot less than China’s as is the percentage of people who emigrate from there to the US. Might that be a more likely reason than concluding that Singapore’s math program is not effective?

I asked the author this question in an email.  She responded:

Having taught and observed several top U.S. Math programs, I can tell
you with certainty that I am yet to encounter one Singaporean. And, you
know, sample size is not an issue here. Either Singaporean Math is not
enough to get the kids into the top U.S. Math programs, or it kills the
kids’ desire to study Math — neither is a good outcome. Furthermore, I’ve
lived in Singapore and it never struck me as Math Capital of the world.

Clearly she knows better than some useless TIMSS exam. And clearly she never visited homeschoolers, or even California.

What am I missing here?