Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Closer and Closer

Recent New York Times article: Where's a Tutor When You Need One? Check Upstairs

Hm, un-teacher-trained adults who live at the school teaching high school students in a 4:1 ratio? It seems that successful public schools are getting closer and closer to the homeschooling model.

Monday, December 19, 2005

A Dead Rat and a String to Swing It With

So I'm reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to Wolfie and Xavier (the ds10 formerly known as Chester) at bedtime. In the second chapter (the whitewashing the fence chapter), both boys were entirely mystified first by the elaborate description of Tom's friend, Ben, pretending he was a paddleboat tug, and then by the various "treasures" the boys paid Tom for the privilege of whitewashing the fence. It's possible that because they had never seen a paddleboat before, that they were unable to picture in their minds what Ben was doing. And the huge numbers of toys available to the modern boy make a one-eyed kitten, a piece of broken glass and "a dead rat and a string to swing it with" seem of dubious entertainment value. Or maybe they're just so coddled that they don't know how to play.

No, that can't be the problem. Before they went to bed, Xavier sent a "wolf-gram" to Wolfie with secret directions in it and Wolfie responded with a full-fledged treasure map delivered by his "identical twin brother who didn't have a pencil taped to his shirt". (And it turns out the "X" on the map marked a real "X" Xavier was supposed to find. It was two pencils taped to Wolfie's shirt at right angles.)

So I don't think the problem is that they don't know how to play. They're just downright weird.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Some thoughts about learning and literacy

Bad news for proponents of bilingual education from today's New York Times:

"The same period saw big declines in Hispanics' English reading skills. In 1992, 35 percent of Hispanics demonstrated "below basic" English literacy, but by 2003 that segment had swelled to 44 percent. And at the higher-performing end of the literacy scale, the proportion of Hispanics demonstrating intermediate or proficient English skills dropped to 27 percent from 33 percent in 1992.

"These are big shifts," said Mark Schneider, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, the arm of the Department of Education that gave the test.

"The Hispanic population in 2003 is radically different than in 1992, and many of the factors that have changed for Spanish-language immigrants make learning English more difficult," Mr. Schneider said. "They are arriving later, staying in the U.S. for a shorter period, and fewer are speaking English at home."

The story also reports that literacy proficiency rates rose for blacks and Asians but fewer than 1/3 of 26.4 college graduates were proficient readers.

Another NYT story from yesterday: Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don't. I'm not sure I agree with the conclusions the researcher draws, though.

"Mr. Lyons sees his results as evidence that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitation, even when that is clearly not the best way to learn. If he is right, this represents a big evolutionary change from our ape ancestors. Other primates are bad at imitation. When they watch another primate doing something, they seem to focus on what its goals are and ignore its actions.

As human ancestors began to make complicated tools, figuring out goals might not have been good enough anymore. Hominids needed a way to register automatically what other hominids did, even if they didn't understand the intentions behind them. They needed to imitate.

Not long ago, many psychologists thought that imitation was a simple, primitive action compared with figuring out the intentions of others. But that is changing. "Maybe imitation is a lot more sophisticated than people thought," Mr. Lyons said."

The author's daughter was recruited for this study through a note in her cubby at preschool, so the researchers were selecting for kids who were schooled. At her first testing session, the girl behaved like the chimp did, i.e. goal-based. It was at the second testing session several months later that she over-imitated. Makes me wonder if this is an effect of school, rather than genes. Most curricula are based on demonstration--"this is how you divide 365 by 12, do it the same way I did"--so it seems possible that she had been socialized to overimitate rather than trust her instincts to solve the puzzle and achieve her goal. Just a thought.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Calling All Adult Harry Potter Fans!

Got a couple minutes to share your opinions for a good cause (helping out a graduate student)?

A woman named Cassandra Driver is doing a study of adult readers of Harry Potter books, and is looking for people to complete an online survey for her. It will take between 15 and 45 minutes to complete (took me about 20, and you know how loquacious I am!). So far she's received more than 300 responses but mostly from Canadian readers. The survey will be posted tomorrow, 9 December, and she's hoping to get some more diverse respondents before we take it down. It's available here.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Science is Your Friend!

2005 was a really big year in terms of "acts of God." No, I'm not getting all religious on you. I'm talking about the wealth of natural disasters in the last...let's say 18 months, so we can include the Almighty trying to wipe Orlando off the map in 2004.

Yes, we've had a huge--no, recordbreaking--hurricane season. Last year was bad and next might be as bad or worse. Global Warming to blame? Um, no. According to Bloomberg. com, "The Atlantic Ocean is about a decade into a naturally occurring 30-year cycle of warmer-than-normal ocean temperatures and increased tropical cyclone activity that began in 1995, Stewart said. The ocean is at least 1 degree Celsius above average this year, he said.

Winds were stronger this year because there was no disruption from the west-to-east winds of an El Nino system in the Pacific Ocean -- blowing against the direction of waves in the Atlantic, he said."
[emphasis mine]

Sharply increasing global warming vs. naturally occurring 30-year cycle = not our fault

What about the tsunami? That's got to be our fault, right? It is, according to a Reuters report that came out two days after the huge wave swamped south-east Asia. "A creeping rise in sea levels tied to global warming, pollution and damage to coral reefs may make coastlines even more vulnerable to disasters like tsunamis or storms in [the] future," wrote Alister Doyle, an environmental correspondent for Reuters, who attributed the opening paragraph of the story to "experts." writes Managing Editor of David Thibault in his article Media Linking Killer Tsunami to Global Warming.

This is utter nonsense. As my fifth-grader can tell you, tsunamis are caused by underwater earthquakes. Seismic activity has nothing to do with global warming. Don't believe me? How about Daniel Sarewitz, a professor of science and society and director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University? As quoted on "[T]ying the tsunami and other natural disasters to human induced climatic change "is both scientifically and morally unsupportable."

Or Patrick J. Michaels at "There is plenty of quantitative evidence on sea-level rise and historical tsunamis and it all paints [this] argument in a bad light." He then refutes each part of the argument. It's a great read.

Why am I complaining about this nearly a year after the fact? Because I saw a crawl on Fox News last night that claimed "American scientists find last year's tsunami moved the sea floor 39 feet." Obviously, they mean the earthquake which caused the tsunami moved the sea floor 39 feet.

And because pseudoscience like this points to the basic lack of scientific literacy in the American public as a whole.

For example, let's take all the hype about vaccinations being bad. Yes, a very, very small number of children have a bad reaction to certain vaccinations. But the media outrage about it has led many otherwise intelligent people to not have their children vaccinated, either because they don't understand the meaning of the statistics involved or they don't understand why or how vaccinations work. And because so many children of otherwise well-meaning and intelligent parents have not been vaccinated, there is a whooping cough outbreak in our local middle and high schools.

Let me repeat that: There is a whooping cough outbreak in the school two miles from my house.

This is not some imaginary, long-dead virus in a galaxy far, far away that we're talking about. I live 100 miles from the nearest urban center in an Upper Midwest, upper-middle class, small to medium-sized town with two large hospitals, surrounded by tiny towns and farmland. If whooping cough can spread here, it can get to your children, too.

Please, please do not just accept what the media tells you about scientific issues. They are more than likely twisting facts to make the message interesting. Or they don't understand it either. Don't let them think for you.

And please, please, please vaccinate your children. Whooping cough, and those other diseases we vaccinate against, kill children. Your children and other people's children. The way to eliminate these diseases forever is for everyone to be immune. That's what vaccinations do. We can save them; we have the technology. Please use it.

Grit More Important than Genes?

Interesting article in Psychology Today: The Winning Edge: We're primed to think that talent is the key to success. But what counts even more is a fusion of passion and perseverance. In a world of instant gratification, grit may yield the biggest payoff of all.

While I agree with most of the article (typos not withstanding), I have a problem with the following:

"Grit, most likely, can be taught, or at least encouraged. But one impediment to growing grit may be -- surprisingly -- the seemingly innocent act of parents praising a child's intelligence. In one fascinating series of studies, Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues showed that children who were praised for their intelligence cared more about their grades than about learning during subsequent tasks. And after experiencing a failure, these children were less persistent than their peers who had been praised for their effort. "When you praise kids' intelligence and then they fail, they think they're not smart anymore, and they lose interest in their work," Dweck explains. "In contrast, kids praised for effort show no impairment and often are energized in the face of difficulty."

The article doesn't say whether the children studied had been consistently, i.e. since birth, praised for intelligence vs. effort. There have been numerous studies about the "Atta-Boy" culture in the public schools--saying "good job" to even the slightest amount of effort on the child's part in an effort to raise self-esteem--being not just absurd but harmful to their ability to work hard and persevere. Which makes me wonder if she's not just seeing the public school effect on gifted kids--kids who are smart but have been taught to value grades over learning because that is what is important in the classroom.

In my mind, though, there is no question that all the IQ points in the world are not going to make you successful unless you get up off the couch. Our local radio station runs an ad for the morning show with the following sound bite: "It's not fair. You sleep late, watch tv all day--the job offers ought to be rolling in!" But praising every tiny amount of effort vs. telling them they're smart is not going to give a child the gumption to put down the remote, really buckle in and change the world.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Virtual Schools: A Halfway Step

Quite a number of states now have virtual public schools. Rather than getting on the bus every morning, students sit down at the computer to get their lessons in multimedia and talk to their teachers via IM or email. In some ways, this is the best of both educational worlds. Students get a progressive curriculum and can work at their own pace and parents don't have to worry about taking on responsibility for their children's entire education. Plus, since they are public schools, they are funded by your tax dollars, i.e. Free!

The following list of links is not meant to be exhaustive. Put your state and "virtual school" into google or contact your state's Department of Public Instruction or equivalent for more info. I'll post more links as I find them.

Arizona Connections Academy

California Connections Academy

Colorado Connections Academy

Florida Virtual School
Florida Connections Academy

Georgia Connections Academy

Idaho Connections Academy

Indiana Connections Academy

Minnesota Connections Academy

Ohio Connections Academy
Treca Academy

Oregon Connections Academy

Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School
Pennsylvania Connections Academy
Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School

The Virtual High School at Prince Willian County Schools

Wisconsin Connections Academy
Overview of Wisconsin Virtual Schools
Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA)
Wisconsin Virtual School (WVS)
Milwaukee Area Technical College Online High School
iQ Academies (HS)

Please be sure to investigate each school before enrolling. Even if it's home-based, it may not be the right fit for your child.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Book Reports: Process vs. Product

In our preliminary conversations with Dr. Ruf about Xavier's learning style, she mentioned that he was more process-oriented than product-oriented. Process-oriented learners want to learn something and then go on to the next thing. For example, given a worksheet with a dot-to-dot, the process person would do the dot-to-dot but consider it a waste of time to color the picture after she figured out what it was.

Or on Xavier's science fair project on blood-typing last spring, he was all excited to learn how it works, right down to the antibodies and antigens and the genetics of how blood types are passed on from one generation to another. But once he had that down, he was not the least bit interested in putting together his display. Gluing words on cardboard did not add to his knowledge base, surprisingly enough.

Dr. Ruf said that process-thinkers often lose their homework. ;-)

A product-oriented thinker likes to show what they've learned. They like to get things done, collect data to show progress over time. Schools are like this--they want concrete proof that you've learned, i.e. worksheets and projects; practice charts and reading logs; grades and test scores, homework. Partly this is because they are responsible to prove to someone else that their students have learned what they need to learn. Partly this is because most teachers I know are product-oriented. Why else the universal obsession with book reports?

Oh, I know. It provides practice summarizing the main idea--an important skill on fill-in-the-dot tests. It introduces critical thinking about literature (although without some guidance, I doubt this is really the case. Most kids are not going to leap from "This is a very very very very very (what was the word count again?) very good book" to "The way the author treated Character A seemed harsh" on their own). And book reports provide practice in public speaking when they are presented to the class. But really, aren't they really just a way to prove to the teacher that you actually read the book? And if you weren't forced to write a report, isn't is possible you would have chosen something longer and more interesting although harder to write about?

Maybe not, but I know the books I read to report on were considerably shorter and less challenging than the books I was reading for pleasure. I noticed the same thing in Wolfie last year and, to a lesser extent, Xavier this year.

I wonder if kids are more likely to lose their math worksheets or their book reports? Maybe I should ask Dr. Ruf.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Homeschooling Update

I just wanted to give a shout out to Klaus. He's finishing his first semester of classwork in Biology, English and Civics this week, six weeks ahead of the ordinary class schedule. Yay, Klaus!