Monday, August 6, 2012

What Makes Johnny (and Charmaine, and. . .) Run? Of Carrots, Sticks, and Education

One Way To Motivate

Motivation is a rather intriguing topic in the world of education, particularly these days, given all the expert opinions the corporate world is offering to or more often blatantly imposing upon public schools, districts, administrators, parents, and children. Of course, teachers themselves are always seeking guidance from more experienced and/or successful educators on how to get kids to behave and do what is demanded and expected of them in and out of class.

On July 31, 2012, writing on her Secondary Education page, Melissa Kelly tried to address the question of how to motivate students when she wrote:
One way to motivate students both behaviorally and academically is to reward them in various ways. I've created a list of ten ways that you can reward middle and high school students. Enjoy!
Here is the list of motivators Ms. Kelly recommended (I will only reproduce their names, not the details, here; click on the link for the whole thing:

1) Sit where you want for the day;
2) Class party;
3) Homework pass;
4) Games day;
5) Extra credit;
6) Small rewards;
7) Water day;
8) Extra computer time;
9) Popcorn party;
10) Take care of the class pet.

Before continuing, I need to make clear that the above list is offered to secondary teachers. In some ways, that's surprising, but I suspect that a very large number of teachers will be familiar with most or all of them, regardless of the grade band in which they teach.

I won't comment on most of these (and didn't remark directly on any of them on her blog), but must here object in particular to the third one. What message does it send to kids about homework if one is rewarded by not having to do it? Please note, I'm not suggesting that homework is something I favor, but merely that it speaks volumes to what even teachers believe about it if they consider it a motivator to give kids a free pass from doing it. If the message of that isn't, "I know I tell you all the time that homework is vital for doing well, and I require that you do it to pass (hence, I give marks for it), I've been lying, because I'm willing to let you get out of doing it, or at least some of you, as a bribe for doing something else I want you to do. So don't believe what I said about homework. Except pretend you do. And you can certainly trust the truth and sincerity of the OTHER things I tell you," then I don't know what it IS saying in reality.

In any event, here is the initial comment I DID leave:
I thought learning and doing meaningful work were their own reward. Why would students need to be bribed into participating in lessons that addressed their inborn needs to make sense of their world? Of course, if the lessons are irrelevent drudgery, bunches ‘o facts disconnected from anything that matters, even obliquely, to the students, I can well-understand the need to provide extrinsic motivation in the form of bribery.
Several replies followed, two of which are worth copying here:
1) Kathleen Bailey says:

Mr. Goldberg [sic], I don’t think you are a teacher. We work so hard to keep the students engaged in learning, to think well of themselves before, during, and after the learning process….but sometimes just a little reward can make a difference. It’s a visual something…I got this sticker because I worked hard to learn; it’s a reminder every time they see it. Teachers, before so many laws about nutrition came into our classrooms, used to be shameless and happy to dispense candy for learning. I just want them to learn and I don’t mind spending my hard earned cash for little prizes. I do not have to do it that often, but I don’t mind a bit. Movie day for weeks and weeks of work on a research paper is a good thing!

2) James Clark says:

With all due respect to Ms. Baily, Mr Goldberg [sic] is correct. I’m a teacher, and I know. You, as a teacher, must feel the bigger issue is that we are forced to bully kids into a simplistic understandings that can boiled down to a multiple choice test. Through an ignorant allegiance to standardized test scores we have a we have sneak love of learning in between preparation for quizzes. To you Mr Goldberg [sic] I would add that I use motivators of every kind. However, the bigger issue is high stakes testing and teacher bullying. You need to tell your principal today (call… I’m he or she is there) and say that you (and all your friends as well perhaps?) want standardized testing to stop. Teachers should be allowed to do what they signed up for… teach and inspire.

And those led me to write what follows:

I appreciate the responses. For what it's worth, I've been in education since 1973. I've taught at the high school level, worked as a field supervisor for secondary and elementary teachers for the Univ. of Michigan, done research in middle school math classrooms, been an elementary and secondary math coach, and done professional development work with K-12 teachers in mathematics. I've also taught math content and methods courses for elementary and secondary teachers at several colleges and universities, and been a mathematics instructor at community colleges in NYC and Michigan.

So yes, I'm a teacher. And I'm also a staunch critic of high-stakes standardized tests.

But I think there's a key point that may have been overlooked, one I intended but didn't make explicit: if you have to bribe/reward kids, there's something wrong. Whether it's that outside forces (e.g., NCLB, Race to the Top, the Common Core) or more internal/local ones (principals, departments,  districts,etc.) that push bad curriculum and "standards" into the classroom, or whether teachers simply aren't asking themselves what actually matters to kids (and please, I'm neither stupid - my son is 17 - nor cynical: kids WANT the world to make sense, and it's up to educators to help them do so. But we mostly don't for a host of reasons.

If you could teach any relevant content you wished, it would behoove you to frame your curriculum around what kids want to know to make sense of their world. Every "subject" is relevant in that regard, at least potentially. We could, if we thought about it, worked with other teachers and curriculum specialists in an inter-disciplinary way, construct units and lessons that addressed what kids want to know. And they DO want to know.

But if you're a secondary teacher, chances are enormous that many if not most of your students are already ruined for learning by the time they reach your classroom. They've been "schooled" to only care about grades, not learning, IF they even care about those. A few may actually want to know things for their own reasons outside the context of the school game, but they aren't the way they are because of some inherent flaw. Rather, we taught them to be that way from early on, and they learned the lessons we taught only too well. Early elementary kids are full of energy and curiosity and life, eager to learn for the most part. By third or fourth grade, much of that has been bent by well-meaning teachers and a system that corrupts everyone.

Please consider how YOU as a teacher have been corrupted by a carrot-and-stick system. It's more blatant now than it's been since unions first arose to make things more fair for professional educators: the new education "reformers" (or as I call them, deformers) are playing a bunch of the same silly "motivational" games with teachers that many teachers believe they must play with their students. And few experienced teachers LIKE the games that are being played with them now, but fail to make the connection between what they do to students (or feel they MUST do) and what the for-profit education deformers are doing to teachers.

It's ALMOST ironic.

I want to close by mentioning several people whose work; as well as public and private writing, speaking and thought have been deeply influential on what I've had to say here: A.S. Neil, Tim Pitkin, Wilhelm Reich, Alfie Kohn, Lynn Stoddard, and Marion Brady. I thank all of them for their humane, child-centered ideas about education and children.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

An Open Letter to Barack Obama About Education

Dear Mr. President:

I write this on your birthday to wish you the very happiest of days. But I also write to speak to you as a parent, educator, and someone who deeply believes in our democratic heritage and values.

When you spoke to the nation after the recent tragedy in Colorado, you appealed to people first as a father, shocked by something he knew could have happened all too easily to his own children. I, too, am a parent. My son is a fine young man of 17 who has attended public schools all his school life. And as someone who has worked in public education for 42 years, I know intimately the strengths and flaws of our education system, about which I comment in these pages and elsewhere on a regular basis. Almost all my professional work over the past 20 years has been in high-needs, inner-city schools of poverty, in Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and New York City (including the South Bronx). And there I have seen poverty and squalor that most Americans can't even begin to imagine, including schools that would be shocking even in third-world countries. I would love to say that what you've accomplished regarding education since you took office is make real in-roads in our neediest schools and communities, but to do so would be a lie.

As long as Arne Duncan is US Sec. of Education, you will be promoting an undemocratic approach, heretofore unprecedented in our history, to imposing federal will on state and local educational practices. Were the policies your administration is effectively enforcing states to adopt good ones (which they are not), I would still hesitate to support the MEANS through which you are promoting them. But as they are not, I am doubly worried about the precedent you are setting for the next George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, or worse: since YOU forced states to accept Race to the Top and the execrable Common Core State (sic) Standards, why won't the next Republican president feel free to force through mandatory vouchers, the forcible breakdown of the separation clause, and much else even more heinous? If past is prologue, you know as well as I that they will not hesitate for an instant. And your approach to educational deform (for it is NOT reform in any traditional sense) will be used repeatedly to justify further disasters.

Duncan must go. Policies that play into the hands of corporate educational deform must go. Allowing high stakes tests to determine our policies must go.

When you were elected in 2008, progressive educators throughout the land celebrated what we saw as a return to national sanity. We believed that you would appoint an educator like Linda Darling-Hammond, Diane Ravitch or Deborah Meier to lead the DOE and bring real classroom teaching experience to bear in improving policy. Instead, you gave us Arne Duncan, a soulless, clueless, corporate drone, a man who manages to insult professional teachers (and parents, and kids) nearly every time he opens his foolish mouth and lets out his ideas about "fixing" schools.

End the madness. Make your second term the best in the history of US education by rejecting corporatization and privatization of public schools. Shut your ears to the siren calls of Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton, Coors, de Voss, and other right-wing and shamelessly greedy foundations, and leave a legacy your children and grandchildren will be proud of. Your kids go to one of the finest PRIVATE schools in the country, while the rest of the black kids in DC are living in the disaster that Michelle Rhee helped make worse and even further steeped in corruption and dishonesty. The high stakes tests don't tell us what kids know or can do. They bring down the integrity of education. They are, simply, a plague upon the land, serving the interests only of their publishers and some very blind politicians.

YOU can make a real difference by speaking out HONESTLY about how poverty and financial inequity slants the educational playing field and rigs the game to the extreme disadvantage of poor and minority students. Every politician pays lip-service to the notion of fairness and the vital importance of quality education in helping make meaningful change for the good, but few if any DO anything useful in this regard.  By supporting truly equal opportunity for everyone, a real chance for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, by including the right to a high-quality education, like the one your daughters are getting, you can help bring about real social change, change that will never come through today's high-needs education: full-time test preparation that kids in Detroit, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles, and many other places are given, whether or not they and their parents like it. Testing isn't teaching, Mr. President, as you have acknowledged but failed to address with good policy. The time to commit to positive change is NOW.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Garfunkel Simonizes the Mathematics CCSS (and I Feel Fine - sort of)

Sol Garfunkel

Sol Garfunkel has just come out against the CCSS in math, while admitting that he'll also be working to help implement them as effectively as he can. Not in some obscure locale, but in an AMS journal, the 8/2012 issue of the Notices.   And I feel fine about it, more or less.

He makes clear that he feels his contributions as a writer of the CCSS were effectively ignored. I find that utterly believable for reasons that are likely clear in the AMS piece.

 I wrote a blog post in 2011, "A Partial Bridge Over Troubled Mathematical Waters: Mumford and Garfunkel Try To Fix US Math Education," in which I critiqued Mumford and Garfunkel's take on how  get things done right in math ed. Even there, it's clear that Sol didn't care for CCSS. I don't know that I realized just how things had gone for him in the writing process, however.

I've hardly been shy about my objections to and skepticism about CCSS. I remain absolutely convinced that what will happen in terms of how mathematics is taught in this country will be nothing good at all.

Having just started re-reading THE TEACHING GAP, 13 years after its publication, 18 years after the TIMSS video study, and with 20 years of teaching and observing other teachers of various levels of experience, from student teachers to 20 and 30 year veterans, I believe that the commentary James Stigler and James Hiebert offer was accurate in the claim that there was little or no evidence of progressive reform teaching (regardless of what textbooks were used) in the US at that point. I agree with what Jim Hiebert said to me at the NCTM Research Pre-session in Philadelphia in 2004: one could stick a pin in a map of the United States, pick a school in the nearest district, pick a math class or lesson in a random school in that district, and that the probability of seeing a progressive reform lesson being taught in the manner proposed in the NCTM Standards volumes from 1989, 1991, and 1993 or 2000 was effectively zero. I believe that's still true today. And I am completely confident that if there is another TIMSS video study done in, say, 2024 after a decade of implementation of the all-important high stakes tests that are being developed for roll-out in 2014, there will still be an effective probability of zero of turning up the sort of thoughtful teaching NCTM had in mind, that appears in the Japanese middle school math lessons from 1994, and not by a long shot. We are stuck in an endless cycle of mindless rote lessons that focus exclusively or nearly so on calculation and algorithms, meant to be memorized and regurgitated by students, taught without any sense of what makes mathematics interesting, powerful, or beautiful. Just a bunch o' facts absorbed for the short-run in order to "pass." And on my view, this is a crime being committed against ourselves, our nation, our children, and our children's children and grandchildren.

Sol Garfunkel gets it exactly right when he describes the oppositional behavior of certain groups and individuals during the Math Wars. And it is a safe bet that anything of value that made its way into CCSS will be watered down, ignored, or fought against doggedly until it vanishes from view. Between the idiocy of yet another top-down approach at effecting real change in individual classrooms, schools, districts, and states, and the absurd educational policies of the clueless Arne Duncan and the rest of the Obama Administration and both houses of Congress, things will only get worse before they get better. Whether they'll EVER get better for more than a small handful of kids lucky enough to encounter real math teaching and learning begins to look more and more doubtful.  As I have argued elsewhere, NCTM, NCSM, and other mathematics education organizations have truly sold out the nation on this boondoggle. Things are no better with NCTE and literacy and literature education. No billionaires are coming to support something better. We have to do it ourselves by staying true to the project of creating great math classrooms, one teacher at a time, and getting the word out ourselves, while fighting the forces of resistance and reactionary thought.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Khan, you bloodsucker! KHAAAAAN! (More musings on the Khan Academy)

Why do many well-meaning (and some not-so-well-meaning) people think that the Khan Academy is THE panacea for various woes, perceived and real, in US mathematics education? Perhaps no one has expressed love for Sal Khan and his on-line videos than a recent anonymous commentator on my last blog piece (way back in November 2011): "Wont' Get Khanned Again: How Can Education Help Democracy Trump Capitalism?"

This anonymous poster wrote:
I am a student studying in grade 11 and all I am concerned with is what you have said about Sal Khan. I have a great amount of respect for him since he is the reason my maths mark went from a 55 to a 78 and my chemistry mark went from a 66 to an 83. All this happened over the coarse of 2 months! I understand that teachers work hard to teach the kids but at the same time, not all kids pick up everything the teachers say. And in most subjects if you miss one small bit of information, you will be lost for the whole topic. Now I know that extra help is provided my almost every single teacher but nowadays almost every kid is involved in extra curricular activities. So, when I would get home I would not understand a single thing and therefore not do my homework and get bad grades, but ever since I have discovered KhanAcademy, I would come home from practice and watch Sal Khan's videos. I learned so much, I caught up on what I missed in class and started doing better and better. Since its so easy to rewind, fast forward, and pause a video, I would learn the topic in no time! so for every teacher out there thats hating on Sal Khan, you should all be thankful that he provides kids with tuition that you just cant. I love the methods he uses to teach and hopefully he will keep this going till he has almost every single topic covered there is. May Allah(swt) Bless him. Keep it up Sal Khan!
Well, I couldn't let that go unanswered, even though I would have preferred to have someone to reply to directly (I have a long, uncomfortable relationship with anonymous and pseudonymous posts and posters on the Internet. It would take a longer explanation than I'm willing to give at this point, but suffice it to say that I have come to the conclusion that if you have something to say you're not willing to put your own name on, something's probably rotten in Denmark, or from wherever it is you're posting. Short of adding a pseudonym for satirical purposes (while still making clear enough that you're the author), there aren't a lot of circumstances in which posting without honest attribution strikes me as justified). But I digress.

Here is my response to the worshipful but thus far unnamed fan of Khan:

As a rule, I try to keep Allah, Buddha, Jehovah, Jesus, Zeus, Odin, Jupiter, Krishna, and other members of various pantheons out of the conversation: there's barely enough room here for the humans without getting gods into these narrow spaces.

But all that aside, here's my very serious, very direct view about what you had to say:

You may have legitimate complaints about math classes, assuming that you don't merely take issue with getting poor grades or judge the quality of either content, teaching, or much else in the classroom or on a free video strictly on whether you're doing well or poorly in a course. Because if the latter is the case, you and I aren't going to have much useful to say to one another.

Another point you touch upon is that if students "miss one small bit of information" then they are lost for the whole topic. I would suggest that what you're dealing with there is, on the one hand, a legitimate complaint about the model for delivery of content to which you and most students are subjected, but that on the other hand, if you were really being taught mathematics (rather than "schoolmath"), you might be making connections on your own sufficiently that missing one little bit wouldn't be quite so fatal. You might actually be able to think about the missing little piece and figure it out. Not always, perhaps, but not never.

But all of this is somewhat moot because, I fear, you've swallowed, through no wrong-doing on your part, a rather gigantic myth. You think your teachers are teaching actual mathematics. And that Sal Khan, his academy, and his videos, are making up for either less wonderful instruction in real mathematics or missing bits of instruction in same.

The fact is, you're not being taught math, and Sal Khan doesn't offer math, either. There is little or no mathematical thought going on in your math classroom. It's not inconceivable to me that if behind a screen, a computationally-able human being and a computer were each producing answers to the exercises you're being asked to deal with, and the only thing you saw was a printout of their respective answers, you'd be unable to tell which was the human and which the computer.

On the other hand, if real mathematical thinking and problem-solving were involved, the computer wouldn't be able to produce answers - at least not if what were input consisted of the same exact words that the human read off the page and then grappled with. Because computers don't think. Neither do they do mathematics. What they can do is crunch numbers, compute, and then do things that are impressive with the results (like graph, manipulate the results in a host of other ways, and give you a printout or screen filled with output.

The blessed Sal Khan doesn't really address mathematics, either. What he and his videos offer you are mini-lessons on how to be a slow, less-reliable computer than the sort they've been selling on the cheap for quite some time. If that's your goal (being a cheap, slow, not always accurate machine), then Sal is no doubt someone you should adore, though frankly I think there are much better on-line resources out there that do pretty much the same thing.

I have no gripe with Khan or 1,000 other people providing such services, whether free or for $$ (if they can find people willing to pay them). I occasionally tutor mathematics, and generally expect to be paid for my time and expertise. But then, I offer something that Sal doesn't: I help students make SENSE of mathematics, to THINK about what they're doing, where it comes from, where it might be heading, how it connects to other things they know or would like to know, and why any of it is worth knowing. So I can honestly claim to be offering tutoring services in mathematics. I don't believe that Khan can. He should be honest and state that he's offering little video treatments of topics in school math, the mastery of which will raise your grades and make you more like a slow, unreliable, more limited version of a TI-83+ or maybe, on a good day, a TI-89. But you won't know mathematics or be able to solve mathematical problems (as opposed to computational exercises and empty symbolic manipulations) any more than can those hand-held devices.

I can't comment on Khan and chemistry. First, I've never watched any of his chemistry videos. They might be superb. But second, I'm utterly clueless about chemistry for the most part and wouldn't presume to judge the content of his videos (though I might well be in a position to weigh in on his pedagogy).

As for 'hating on' Sal Khan, I do in fact have objections to a lot about him, what he has to say, and how he operates. But that's besides the point and not in any way a shot at how wonderful you feel when you improve your grades in schoolmathematics. I just wish he would engage in a bit of 'truth in advertising' as to what he's really offering, and that Bill Gates would stop using his bully pulpit and gazillions of dollars to try to convince everyone that the Khan Academy is the real McCoy of mathematics education. Because it might be many things, but it most assuredly is NOT the real McCoy. It's pablum, meant to appeal to people who are being misled by their mathematics teachers, their textbooks, etc., as to what mathematics really is and what it means to be doing it. If Khan were charging you, you might well have grounds to file a complaint with the Consumer Protection Agency (assuming that the lunatics in Congress don't do away with that in short order).
Sue Van Hattum kindly wrote in reply to the above: "Michael, I love your reply. I think this is the first time I've seen the Turing test applied to math ed. :^)

I've no idea if I've broken new ground, but regardless, it seems like a line of thought worthy of pursuit. If what your math teachers are offering you in K-12 (or if you're a K-12 mathematics teacher who offers that which) won't pass the Turing test, maybe they (or you) should be replaced by computers. Oh, wait: that's exactly what I suspect Bill Gates and the educational deformers would adore. Then they wouldn't have to bother paying even the generally low salaries most charter schools offer (apologies in advance to the good charter schools with fair pay and contract policies) and could hire a few folks with a combination of skills in computer technology and guarding prisons and save a packet.

One last thing: I found a very provocative take on Khan Academy that explores some of the reasons I find Mr., Khan and his work so vapid and disturbing. Please take the time to check out Frank Noschese's "You Khan't Ignore How Students Learn."  And the rest of his blog looks very much worth exploring for reflections on teaching.