SCHOOL FOR THOUGHT
As this article from our archives explains, appropriate homework is an excellent way for teachers to leverage scarce teaching time. So what do you make of this article about a Montreal elementary school that has banned homework for the year?
I find it hard to wrap my mind around the spokesperson's hypothesis that the new policy may improve student performance. Sort of like the way eating less makes you gain weight? Or driving more slowly gets you to your destination faster?
It's Labour Day, and so with the BC teachers' strike apparently set to continue indefinitely, here is an article on unions in general. H/T CC
If you watch this video, you will see that Rita Smith made a donation to SQE. If you read this, you will see why.
GUEST BLOG BY TOM BEREND, SQE DIRECTOR
Following the appalling results of the latest EQAO report, we looked at the consequences of the low achievement of our grade-6 public school math programs. The kids that can't do grade 6 math aren't going to university to study engineering or medicine six years later, but it turns out that they aren't likely to be successful at a college either.
In 2011, the York-Seneca Institute for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education (YSIMSTE) published a report that reviewed the math load for various college programs across Ontario, both as stand-alone courses and math courses embedded into specialist courses such as accounting and electrical theory.
No surprise - they found that one needs some math to be a technician or a nurse, although maybe not calculus. However, a disturbingly large number of students at college are struggling with math that they should have learned in elementary school. And the colleges all realizing that, they are offering elementary-school math remediation courses. From the Seneca report:
"One in four of [students at risk of not completing due to low achievement in math] are studying college preparatory mathematics which covers concepts initially taught in grades 6 through 8 as part of the Ontario elementary school curriculum. These concepts include:
Order of Operations
Ratio and Proportion
The Seneca take-away is that it is our elementary schools that are failing in math education. The problem starts very early.
In trying to explain Ontario's poor math results, the Minister of Education betrayed her (and presumably the EQAO's) total lack of understanding of the problem when she said that the "students are struggling with problem solving, not basic math operations". more
Let me see if I have this right. The kids are using their calculators and manipulatives (allowed on the test) to get the right answers to the arithmetic questions, so therefore they are okay in arithmetic.
The EQAO officials and the Minister thus clearly have no understanding of the importance of fluency and automaticity when it comes to problem solving - even though mainstream research has long accepted this truth. Because working memory has a very limited capacity, when the kids tackle the problems they can't manipulate the numbers in their heads and get bogged down by their reliance on calculators and manipulatives.
Here is a thought-provoking article from our archives. It concerns a school where the principal brought in school-wide math drills: the children increased not only their fluency and automaticity, but also their problem-solving skills. Here's what the principal of the school had to say.
"It is interesting to note that the use of the MATH program for just 10 minutes a day resulted in an improvement not only in basic skills but also increased achievement in all areas tested. It is my view that this is somewhat like the reading process. When a student is freed up from the laborious task of decoding most of the words in a passage, his comprehension improves. So in math: when basic computation can be done with speed and accuracy, more attention can be given to the process or problem. One of the unexpected results of the MATH program was the extent of the generalization that was evident in gains in math concepts and applications, including logical reasoning."
Ontario's testing body (EQAO) has released its yearly test results and grade 6 math is down another 3 percentage points. Click here for the highlights. Now just over half of the province's grade 6 students are deemed ready for middle school math (although of course they will all be promoted to grade 7 anyway, where they will struggle with math and drop it as soon as they can).
Click here for Christina Blizzard's take on these results. She kind of says it all (but please note that Christina uses the word 'curriculum' to mean teaching methods and materials). H/T LDA
One of our readers has responded to our Remembering to Learn post about the importance of drilling to automaticity, suggesting that we post an excerpt from Daisy Christodoulou's terrific book Seven Myths About Education. The first of Ms Christodoulou's myths is FACTS PREVENT UNDERSTANDING, and here is an excerpt from pages 17-20.
"My aim here is not to criticise true conceptual understanding, genuine appreciation of significance or higher-order skill development. All of these things are indeed the true aim of education. My argument is that facts and subject content are not opposed to such aims; instead, they are part of it.
"Much of the modern research into human intelligence was inspired and informed by research into artificial intelligence. To construct a machine that could think, scientists needed a better understanding of how humans actually thought.....'Our understanding of the role of long-term memory in human cognition has altered dramatically over the last few decades. It is no longer seen as a passive repository of discrete, isolated fragments of information that permit us to repeat what we have learned. Nor is it seen only as a component of human cognitive architecture that has merely peripheral influence on complex cognitive processes such as thinking and problem solving. Rather, long-term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear, and think about is critically dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory.
"When we encounter a problem we want to solve, we can use working memory and long-term memory to solve it. 'Working memory can be equated with consciousness. Humans are conscious of and can monitor only the contents of working memory. All other cognitive functioning is hidden from view unless and until it can be brought into working memory.' So when we want to solve a problem, we hold all the information relating to the problem in working memory. Unfortunately, working memory is highly limited. There is some debate in the literature about exactly how limited working memory is, but some of the most recent research suggests that it may be limited to as few as three or four items. That is, we can hold only three or four new items in working memory at any one time. This places a huge limit on our ability to solve problems....
"When we commit facts to long-term memory, they actually become part of our thinking apparatus and have the ability to expand one of the biggest limitations of human cognition. Anderson puts it thus: 'All that there is to intelligence is the simple accrual and tuning of many small units of knowledge that in total produce complex cognition. The whole is no more than the sum of its parts, but it has a lot of parts.'
"A lot is no exaggeration. Long-term memory is capable of storing thousands of facts, and when we have memorised thousands of facts on a specific topic, these facts togther form what is known as a schema. When we think about the topic, we use that schema. When we meet new facts about that topic, we assimilate them into that schema - and if we already have a lot of facts in that particular schema, it is much easier for us to learn new facts about that topic.
"Critics of fact-learning will often pull out a completely random fact and say something like: who needs to know the date of the Battle of Waterloo? Why does it matter? Of course, pulling out one fact like this on its own does seem rather odd. But the aim of fact-learning is not to learn just one fact - it is to learn several hundred, which taken together form a schema that helps you to understand the world. Thus, just learning the date of the Battle of Waterloo will be of limited use. But learning the dates of 150 historical events from 3000 BC to the present day and learning a couple of key facts about why each event was important will be of immense use, because it will form the fundamental chronological schema that is the basis of all historical understanding. Just learning that 4 X 4 is 16 will be of limited use. But learning all of the times tables, and learning them all so securely that we can hardly not think of the answer when the problem is presented, is the basis of mathematical understanding. If we want pupils to have good conceptual understanding, they need more facts, not fewer."
On the right is a picture of the headquarters of the Michigan Education Association (teachers' union). It looks like an expensive building, probably a nice place to work in and costly to maintain. For sure, the union has lots of well-paid staffers with cushy jobs.
In 2012, Michigan became the 24th right-to-work state. This means that Michigan workers no longer have to belong to a union if they want to work at certain jobs, including teaching. However, the Michigan Education Association says it will use any means possible to hold on to its members - for example, the union will accept teachers' resignations only in the month of August (a fact not, of course, advertised by the union). more more
This raises the question of whose interests the union is looking out for. I can't really see how it helps the union's individual members to prevent them from leaving when they want to. But it's easy to see that the union would be better off with the maximum number of members - more union staff positions, higher salaries, more clout, and so forth.
GUEST BLOG BY MS MOLE
I read with interest the piece on the Huffington Post website. It's a pity, but the fact is, that even though the schools and teachers know what the legislation is with regards to helping ALL students learn, in the interest of expediency they don't always adhere to the requirements. I have a lot of experience with this.
I became a teacher in 2002, so that I could help my daughter from within the system. She has a learning disability (Auditory Processing) that prevented her from handling the volume of work required in school. Nonetheless, she is a bright gal who has gone on to become an Early Childhood Educator.
Every year, I had to advocate for her, ensuring she was getting the attention that was rightfully hers. As well, I was her scribe and interpreter. Once things were explained in a different way, she was able to understand the concept. As she got older, she understood what she needed (she's extremely visual), so she would ask her teachers to present the information to her in another way. With one of her math teachers, she tried this; however, the woman was incapable of translating her work into anything other than the gobblygook written formula that made sense to people who learn with her own style, but not for those who learn visually. As you can imagine, my daughter did very poorly that year.
Another time, she was given a take-home art exam that even I had trouble interpreting (I'm a high school English teacher). The instructions for this exam were written in paragraph form with no highlighting. My daughter's reaction to it was, "It's just words, Mom." The words made no sense to her (due to her disability, she needs chunking of info and highlighted words for the main ideas). I compare her confusion to mine when I do a jigsaw puzzle. To me, those pieces are "just colours". Consequently, in order for her to complete her test, I was required to break down what the teacher was asking into separate questions.
I am an educated person who understands the limitations and struggles teachers face on a daily basis. Nonetheless, teachers have to be accountable to ALL students. Although I was able to help my daughter because of my own skills and abilities, imagine those students whose own parents had similar difficulties in school. Of course, these students would believe that school is "stupid" and the teachers are "idiots". If you can't even understand the instructions, how are you going to continue with the work?
My mother, who grew up in a disadvantaged home during the Depression, always told me that her mother was illiterate. Nevertheless, my mother stressed education for her children, so my sisters and I all have post-secondary degrees.
When I read your blog on the Huffington Post site, I remembered that this is one of my goals in life: i.e., to help others have their children succeed too. (By the way, I have two other children. They were both above-average students who had little difficulty in school. The older did well in university and works as a Events Planner, while my younger chose the trades and is an Electrician).
Do you have any suggestions for me? Should I post blogs myself? Should I approach the schools to advocate from within? I am really concerned that all children reach their own potential and that the schools need to aid that path to success.
Simple but profound.