About Julian

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I teach math to kids. They teach me a lot of things, too. I think it's an even swap.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Math Anxiety - Blame me

For most of my career I have pushed back - gloriously unsuccessfully - against the onslaught of standardized testing.  From the time Americans start learning addition, they are subjected to timed tests. Having myself been a parent of second- and third-graders forced to complete hundreds of addition and multiplication facts in five-minute increments, I have been a first-hand witness and, if I really want to be truthful, a perpetrator of the stress-induced onset of math anxiety.  My kids seemed to have survived this traumatic period in their lives, but there is considerable research that shows these timed tests are the beginning of the "I just can't do math," mindset that so many people in this country suffer from.

Jo Boaler wrote in an Education Week article last July how stress-inducing time tests have a physiological response on the brain and that kids as young as five years old show signs of math-related stress.  She writes
. . .and the level of interest in the subject is at an all-time low. This is a result, in part, of schools in the United States heading down a fast-moving track in which the purpose of math has been reduced to the ranking of children and their schools. Math has become a performance subject. Children of all ages are more likely to tell you that the reason for learning math is to show whether they “get it” instead of whether they appreciate the beauty of the subject or the way it piques their interest.
More and more we are applying a corporate model to education where everything except student satisfaction in their learning is quantified.  It is as if we have come to believe that students improve by assessing and ranking them, rather than through the actual instruction.

Number of external standardized tests students in my high school take in their four years: 25 - 30
Number of external standardized tests students in Finnish high schools take in their four years: 2

Finland, which is regularly touted as one of the best, if not the best school system in the country, has gone the opposite direction from the U.S.  And the few tests students do take (with the exception of their summative test at the end of high school) are low-stakes tests used for teacher professional development and a means to measure student growth, but not teacher nor school accountability.

In Finland, only 7% of students state they feel math anxiety.  In the United States, the number is greater than 50%.  While there are many, many reasons the Finnish school system is more successful than the US system, and I encourage people interested in delving into those reasons further read Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg to better understand those reasons, certainly the obsession on testing in the U.S. is inconsistent with the successful approach employed in Finland.

I want to teach in a way that students "appreciate the beauty of the subject," but I so often feel I am employed by a test-prep center, knowing that I am doing harm to my students' long-term appreciation of the subject I love.

Friday, February 8, 2013

I MOOC, therefore I am

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are all the rage these days.  I have been curious - and a bit skeptical - about them, so I thought I would give one a try myself.  In the interest of full disclosure you should know that I am a skeptical thinker by nature.  I consider myself an early adopter and I have always made efforts to incorporate technology into my teaching where I think it makes sense, but I always feel there needs to be a compelling reason to try something before I expose my kids to it.

Call me compelled.

I am currently enrolled in Robert Ghrist's Single Variable Calculus course out of Coursera and the University of Pennsylvania. I have found Dr. Ghrist's approach to teaching calculus interesting, relevant, and refreshing. His introductory lessons were on Taylor Series of all things, and he expands (pun intended) on their use and meaning in his subsequent units on differentiation and integration.  He demonstrates how calculus is used in the ever-so-lofty "real world" with approximations and other applications.  He has given me great ideas for how I will be teaching the topic of series in my Calc BC class.

But, I remain skeptical.

I am a very disciplined person - not crazy, but disciplined. I floss daily.  Yet, I am having a hard time maintaining focus, staying on schedule, and doing all the work.  I have found myself skipping videos and homework.  Yes, I already know calculus pretty well and I am not learning a lot of new stuff, but this course is intended for someone who has previously seen calculus and the material is quite challenging, and I really do want to participate fully.  It's just that in my busy schedule, I find it easiest to jettison something to which I have no financial or social commitment.

I'm not the only one.

Dan McFarland, a professor in Stanford's Graduate School of Education recently offered his Organizational Analysis course as a MOOC.  He required his Stanford students to sign up and take the course and provide feedback. They were among the 44,501 students who registered for the course.  The vast majority had the same commitment issues I have with my MOOC.  Of the initial registrants, only 2,375 took the final (I couldn't find out how many actually passed), and only 291 actually wrote a paper for the class that would give them an advanced certificate of completion.

McFarland's students had mixed feelings about the course as well.  Some found the isolation difficult; when they wished to ask a question, no one was around; many found it difficult to focus on the video lectures as they sat watching them alone.   MOOCs attempt to deal with this isolation in different ways. There are discussion forums in MOOCs, but they require you to post a question and wait for a response.  Some have live lectures where you can participate in live chat, but chat rooms with thousands of people are never efficient and often distracting and can do more harm than help.

I want MOOCs to work.  They would be a great way to offer students at my small, poorly-funded school more learning options.  And they can offer access to high-level educational opportunities to people that would never dream of having such access.  Think of a poor farmer in Bangladesh learning programming or a Tibetan teenager discovering democracy through a social sciences course.  I do see them as potentially transformative.

But much work needs to be done to motivate participants.

I'm encouraged by a recent development in the course I am taking. It appears that Dr. Ghrist's course and a few other Coursera courses may be receiving accreditation which could lead to offering credit for these courses.  That would be a big step in the right direction.  But I don't see that motivating me; after all I didn't sign up for college credit in the first place.  I, and the students in Dr.  McFarland's course, have a different issue with MOOCs - the lack of social interaction.  I learn best as part of a collective, bouncing thoughts and questions off of each other.  I feed off the collective energy of a group of students working together toward a common goal.  This is true whether I'm the student or I'm the teacher.

MOOCs have potential, and that potential, in my view, includes the effect of propagating an ever-increasing malady in our society, the illness of individualism. Learn alone, achieve alone, fail alone. The "I built it" theme at the Republican convention this past summer was emblematic of this disease of "me."  I fear MOOCs and other trends in education like competency-based learning could contribute to this problem, and I worry the primary reason I got into teaching - to develop better human beings - is going to suffer if individual achievement is stressed over the accomplishments of society.  Yes, I am a "It takes a village" kind of guy, and I suspect I am a bit paranoid, but I love seeing my students collectively do great.  And I want to be part of that whenever I am a student, too.  I'm not ready to embrace the MOOC phenomenon yet.

 If you're going to MOOC, MOOC responsibly.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Teach how to learn, not what to learn

I just finished reading a short book by Will Richardson titled "Why School?" It's based on a TED Talk he gave in 2011, and appears to only be available as an e-book, which fits with the theme of the book - technology in education. In this book he questions the fundamental purpose of schools in this age of the internet.  Having also read "Disrupting Class" by Clayton Christensen, I was expecting another book that was going to espouse software as the next great teacher.  We can debate if that is the point of Disrupting Class or not, but it certainly wasn't the point made by Richardson.

Richardson acknowledges that information and facts are in abundance, and there is no point in teaching facts.  Each student holds in his or her pocket a device which can retrieve those facts in a few clicks.  Unfortunately, driven by skills-based, high-stakes testing, this is what teaching has become more of, and it is how the majority of technology in the classroom is being utilized.  We fool ourselves into thinking we are cutting edge technologists by sitting kids in front of Khan Academy videos.  As Richardson asks, "What is the point of going to school for something you can do from home?"

I think most well-meaning educators share Richardson's view that school should be a place to develop deep inquiry, a place to explore passions.  Yet, a pitiful amount of that goes on in our schools.  More and more we are at the mercy of politicians and businessmen who are well-meaning but think that an education can be broken down into a few numbers.  And as a result of the ever-increasing push to increase test scores, schools are becoming test prep centers, not the places of academic enlightenment we believe them to be.

Our schools are driving curiosity and creativity out of our kids.  I recently received an e-mail from one of the hardest-working, most driven students I have ever taught.  It choked me up when I read it.  Here is an excerpt:

 Entering Summit, I: 1) read for fun all the time and 2) loved math
 Leaving Summit, I: 1) never read for fun and 2) was kind of sick of math, despite having an excellent teacher for three years of it.
I can attribute some of that flagging intellectual curiosity to the social environment of public high school, but I still think Summit's academic environment didn't do enough to stimulate my love of learning. I truly believe in Summit's vision and mission, but I think that it is sometimes so standards- and test-driven that it forgets some of the most crucial goals of education. I realize there are a lot of other factors at play including the educational backgrounds, cultures, and goals of the Summit student body, but I think that genuine intellectual curiosity can be one of the most valuable qualities a person can have, and it can absolutely be fostered in Summit's classrooms.
This from a 19-year-old kid.  Why can't he be in charge of our state's educational policies?

We MUST change.  But how do we go about it?  Richardson gave one word of advice - Scream.  Talk to teachers, school boards, politicians, and even the high-powered foundations and institutions that are, more and more, the dictators of educational policies.  He boycotted his kids' schools during the end-of-year testing period.  What would happen if we all did that?

We need to teach how to learn, not what to learn.

In my next post, I think I'll chat about how I envision using technology to do that.  It includes some of Richardson's ideas, as well as my own based on experiences with incorporating technology in my own classroom.


So, if you dared to look at the posting history, you may perchance have noticed that I haven't used this blog except for the initial mistart when I thought I would use it as a communication forum for my algebra 2 class - THREE YEARS AGO!

That didn't work so well.

The reasons it didn't work were many and not worth going into at the moment.  Let's just say that I have chosen to use other methods to communicate with my students - e-mail, static websites, and Facebook for class-wide discussion.

I am reviving this blog with the intention of sharing my own thoughts, insights and summaries on teaching math in a time that I feel represents a crossroad in public education, particularly in the charter school world in which I have taught for the past six years.  The influence of big government, new standards, large foundations, technology, funding cuts, and  . . . well, the list is long . . . is putting pressures on teachers like never before.  Pressures to adapt, pressures to perform, pressures to comprehend all these changes and the expectation that we will be experts in adopting these changes to the best interests of our students.

It's daunting.

I am constantly browsing other math blogs.  In particular, I want to recommend a couple of my favorites: Dan Meyer's dy/dan and Sam Shah's Continuous Everywhere but Differentiable Nowhere.  They have different foci, and I hope mine will differ from theirs, but these are worth reading for any math educator.

I'm not sure what path this blog will take - focus on curriculum, teaching methods, use of technology, political pressures, . . . - but I hope to learn from other's learning and create exponential growth in all of us.