Friday, May 2, 2014


"Kids are born learners.  Job of parents and teachers is to avoid killing that drive." @rgrumbine

That tweet from yesterday has gotten picked up more, and by wider group, than usual.  No doubt this was aided by the fact that it was in midst of tweets between @louisck (I'm a fan) and @alexnazaryan.  The twitter-storm is driven by 'common core', whatever that is these days, Alex making some surprising-to-me defenses, and Louis being peeved about the cc (by way of his daughters).  I have some biases I'll discuss at the bottom

Alex replied to my tweet: "Yes.  But learning is a hungry beast.  You have to supply it with good material daily."  I agree with that, too, though we may not agree about what constitutes good material.

I'm going to start very much smaller than writing my own comprehensive national program for education.  Start with a tweet I made earlier today, answering @dougmcneal about how I got in to science -- "Permanent interest in learning, and being better at that than applying it practically (i.e. engineering)."

As a permanent learner, what do I do? Well, let's start with one end result: it means I know a lot of stuff*.  That's probably not the end to emphasize in design and testing of schooling, though.  Two of the things I know, for instance, are that the atomic mass of hydrogen is right about 1, and the atomic mass of helium is a bit less than 4 times hydrogen's.  It would be easy to write a test that asked students for the name and atomic mass of every element (#117 was recently confirmed).  This would be worse than useless, though this approach is common.  Also common to be asking whether the atomic mass of Helium is 4.00, or 3.98, or 3.998, etc.
The thing is, speaking as a scientist, it doesn't matter for general learning what, exactly the mass of hydrogen _or_ helium is.  They're memorizable, but if we're in a situation where the number matters, we need it accurately -- which means looking it up.

What matters about the mass of helium being a bit less than 4 times the mass of hydrogen comes from the fact that we have two connecting principles, the law of conservation of energy, and E = mc^2 (Einstein's equation).  If we slam together 4 hydrogen atoms we wind up with less mass (in the Helium) than we started with in hydrogen.  By Einstein's equation, that also means less energy -- which is illegal.  To avoid breaking this law, energy has to show up somewhere else.  It does so as radiation, which is what makes the sun shine.

Most of the 'standards' tests emphasize the 'what is the chemical symbol for hydrogen', 'what is the atomic mass of hydrogen' kinds of questions.  They are easy to write, even if you don't know the subject, and they're easy to score.  And certainly I know many such little brick facts.  But I did not learn those little bricks on their own in any great degree, so tests which emphasize the bricks are aimed wrong.  They see/test a result of learning, but the result did not occur by the obvious path that teachers under pressure to produce test scores might look to, or that some parents/administrations/school boards may demand.  Someone might even have experimental results that say such brick collecting is good. 

It's happened before.  Among the many times and topics, reading.  In the 1950s and in to the 1960s, reading teaching was more or less phonetic.  This made sense, in that English is a more or less phonetic language.  It was observed, truly, that expert readers did not actually sound out most words bit by bit.  Experts have a large body of 'sight' words -- they just glance and know that the word is moose.  So a new method, 'see and say' was developed that didn't waste time with the old methods, and went straight to what experts do with most words.  Trials done on students (who had been taught with phonetic methods for some years previously) showed a surge in their vocabularies compared to the students who continued on phonetics.  So schools started implementing 'see and say' throughout their reading curricula.  Some 20+ years after that, I was an adult literacy tutor in Pennsylvania.  The program could tell when schools started instituting 'see and say', because that age and younger was the age of their students.  The easily tested result of good instruction was a poor method for reaching that same result.

So it goes in construction as well.  You can pile up bricks.  You can even make very large piles of bricks.  With bricks alone, however, you either can make a small, one or two story, house, or a pyramid.  What you can't make is a skyscraper.  Nor would that one or two story house be stable against a wind, maybe not even a breeze.

To get to the skyscraper, you need mortar and the steel frame.  The E = mc^2 is something by way of mortar -- it relates two very specific items.  The Law of Conservation of Energy is one of the major chunks of steel framing, supporting a very large fraction of the building.

But, again, it is tremendously easy to mis-test these things.  It's very easy to treat these as bricks -- test students on recognizing the definitions.  This is useless, and shows where the analogy breaks down.  Mortaring bricks together is an active process, it is a verb, not a noun.  Erecting the steel framing is even more active.  It's possible to write questions, and grade them, which will test whether students can apply the principles correctly.  But it is certainly not as easy, fast, or as cheap.

Good testing is important, just that _good_ testing is important.  Bad testing is worse than useless.  As a life long learner, much of it outside of school (even when I was in school), two of the questions I ask myself is 'do I really understand this?'  'can I apply the principles correctly?'.  Testing is how I find out.  But these tests are almost never multiple choice machine-scored. 

Few answers for now.  Just collecting some ingredients and presenting them for discussion.  My view of a modest portion of the learning process.  (More to come?)  I'll be interested in the comments.

Disclaimer time:
I come from a very teacherly family.  One sister was a jr. high science teacher for a decade, until the administration + school board succeeded in making life sufficiently awful.  The other has been teaching for ... about two decades now (hey sis, someone's getting old!).  My mother, after retiring from something else, got certified for early childhood education and did that for more than a decade.  An aunt taught some at Georgetown Law.  One grandmother was dean of women at a college for a time, the other taught a couple decades.  But it was the latter's engineer husband who taught my mother to read.  More teachers continue to show up as we go farther back in my ancestry, and some county superintendents.  My wife was a teacher, and her mother was a teacher much of her life.  While I agree that there are bad teachers, I had a few myself, I also am not buying the argument made by some that teachers are the whole problem. 

*stuff: One of my high school english teachers swore that she'd cut us a letter grade every time we used the words 'things' or 'stuff'.  So I make sure to use them whenever they are indeed the correct words :-)


EliRabett said...

Eli had the pleasure of doing demonstrations at the Science and Engineering festival in DC two weeks ago. It was a delight because of the kids.

In most cases the bunny got to interact with the kids and got to watch them think about and extend the demonstration in unexpected (to Eli) ways, but there was one kid who was particularly troubling, not the kid, but his dad who was literally oppressing his son (as in you are stupid kid). That was sad, but there was little to be done.

Yes, children are natural learners. Sometimes you have to slow them down to correct wrong directions, but mostly you learn with them.

Oh yeah, see and say. Eli;s mom was the last of the first grade dragons, she could and did teach rocks to read. See and say works for the large majority of students, but there are some who just don't get it. Those you have to use phonics with. The problem with command control in schools is that this does not let teachers modify their teaching to meet such needs.

Anonymous said...

I was passing by the blogging neighborhood and thought I’d stop in for some ruminating. Thoughtful post. I giggle to remember that I’m in the family biz. It doesn’t often feel that way, though it’s certainly true. I think that teachers are continuous learners. We have to be. We get so excited about this fact or that expression (mathematical, metaphorical, doesn’t matter) that we feel compelled to share the enthusiasm with whoever will halfway listen and even with those who don’t. Fortunately, we have students, our captive audience of potential lifelong learners themselves. I tend to think of my students as my apprentices. They’re learning and using the questioning strategies that will help them as they get older.
The mandates passed along at the national, state, and local level don’t change the fact that kids are great sponges. True teachers, as opposed to those caricatures featured on TV shows, adapt their lessons to meet the kiddos where they are and propel, yank, plead, beg, bribe, and motivate them forward. Good teachers nod at the standards (we need to know what to put in our reports, after all), but then we get all down in there and teach. Teaching is an art form; there is no cookie-cutter way to “get” kids to learn – and this is where many people get concerned about common core and other such initiatives. I am mindful of our national averages, and use that information as a point to ponder, not necessarily as the entire educational roadmap.
The best teaching, theoretical and applied, occurs when the kiddos are presented with some problem (insert subject area here) and then given the tools to work on a solution of their own design. Your brick/mortar example is apt. Questions that extend thinking beyond “what can I barf up at a moment’s notice” are exactly the questions we focus on (the extending, not the barfing). Teachers have to ensure their kiddos know the building blocks before we set them free, and that’s what small learning groups are for. Everyone, though, practices the higher order thinking skills that end up generating Wonderful Ideas. I capitalize this on purpose.
Do we do this daily? Yep. Do we spend a lot of time barfing up basics? Yep. We also generate and test hypotheses in all our classes. That’s pretty cool. Or, maybe I’m just lucky to work where I do. Either way, as your Tweet pointed out, the best way to teach our kids is to give them the tools they need and then let them go fishing. Of course, we supervise for safety and ask deepening questions along the way. At first, we choose the pond, and then gradually let them choose their own.
P.S. I’ve only been teaching for 11 years and still consider myself a newbie.

Robert Grumbine said...

My (and anonymous's) grandmother was another of those dragons Eli. She was nominally a 'phonics' teacher, but your comment and anon's, and anon's 11 years (really? I was sure you'd been teaching longer than that!) point to a different issue -- only cartoon rigid teachers use pure X methods. Whether it was see and say, or phonics, or new math, or [insert more recent buzz phrase] good teachers use a mix of methods to support the goal of students learning more stuff. It is the learning more stuff, more skills, advancing ability to question and learn on their own, that is the target. Any particular method is good, to a good teacher, only to the extent it supports the real goal.