"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Monday, July 24, 2017

Why Basic Education Is So Important

In the previous post, No More Algebra, the strongest argument for retaining algebra as a requirement for all is that some people can easily take advantage of your gullibility. And they will. Misinformation abounds not just in social media or the internet. This is especially tragic when the medium is a traditional news source. A recent article in Philippine Star even uses "Oxford" to propagate unsubstantiated news. And it is not just about a catchy headline as the article starts with this groundless statement: "A University of Oxford study found that $200,000, around P10 million, was spent to hire trolls who would spread propaganda for President Rodrigo Duterte and target his opposition." 

The Oxford study mentioned in this news article is a working paper by Samantha Bradshaw and Philip N. Howard. The Philippines Star fails to mention one major limitation of the study:
This working paper lays the groundwork for understanding the global trends in the organized and coordinated use of social media for manipulating public opinion...
...In terms of scope, there are several things we do not investigate. First, although cyber troops will often apply traditional offensive cyber tactics, such as hacking or surveillance, to target users for trolling or harassment campaigns, this is not a working paper about hackers or other cybersecurity professionals who work in a governmental capacity.
The study is only a survey of news articles, and the sources used by the author for the Philippines are:
Gavilan, J. (2016, June 4). Duterte’s P10M social media campaign: Organic, volunteer‐driven. Rappler
Williams, S. (2017, January 4). Rodrigo Duterte’s Army of Online Trolls. New Republic.
The first article (Gavilan) does not talk about an army of trolls. It was simply a description of the grassroots campaign of Duterte when he was running for president, an interview of Nick Gabunanda, the social media director of Duterte's campaign. The heart of the article was the fact that Gabunada only had a very small budget, $200,000 (the same figure Philippine Star claims to have been used to pay for a troll army) but still managed to create a very strong presence in social media. Here is an excerpt:
In November 2015, when he decided to run for president, he enlisted a marketing consultant named Nic Gabunadato assemble a social media army with a budget of just over $200,000. Gabunada used the money to pay hundreds of prominent online voices to flood social media with pro-Duterte comments, popularize hashtags, and attack critics. Despite being vastly outspent by his rivals, Duterte swept to power with almost 40 percent of the vote. After the upset victory, the new president’s spokesman issued a warm thanks to Duterte’s 14 million social media “volunteers.”
Above copied from Rappler
The title of the Rappler article even emphasizes that Duterte's social media campaign was organic and volunteer-driven. And there is no doubt because the meager amount of funds obviously supports this statement.

The second source cited in the Oxford study is an article from the New Republic, which the working paper considers not as among the top credible sources for information. The following is what MediaBias/FactCheck says about the New Republic:

It is easy to see why New Republic is untrustworthy. In the article cited by the Oxford Study, the following is written in bold and large font size:
The government pays online trolls up to $2,000 a month to create fake social media accounts and flood the digital airwaves with propaganda.
Unfortunately, the bold and large font size in this article is only matched by zero evidence. The Oxford study did not investigate the details of the news articles. The Oxford study was simply a survey of news articles.

We need basic education. We need to learn math. We need to learn to read. What does $2000 per month mean in the Philippines? It is a lot of money for just working as an online troll.

We need basic education so that we become less gullible because sadly, those who have been entrusted to inform the public will not hesitate to fool us.

Blogger Tricks

Sunday, July 23, 2017

No More Algebra?

Math is beautiful. Algebra will help you with developing critical thinking skills. You will use it in the future. These are some reasons often provided to justfy making algebra as a required course. One can say the same thing about art. Art is likewise beautiful. You may likewise use what you learn in an art course in your job. Besides, our planet "earth" is simply "eh" without "art". However, there may be a slight difference between art and algebra. Students find algebra as a major hindrance to obtaining higher education. In community colleges, passing algebra has become a barrier to graduation.

Removing algebra as a required course in community colleges has recently gained momentum in Calufornia. Jude Thaddeus Socrates, a professor of mathematics at Pasadein posted the following on Facebook:

Above copied from Facebook

But before arriving quickly at such a conclusion, we may need to pause.

First, the challenges of algebra in both high school and community colleges of course lie on so many factors outside of mathematics itself. Poor performance in algebra, as in other academic subjects, correlates with poverty. Poverty is often the real barrier to graduation, not algebra.

Second, algebra provides some unique learning opportunities. Zalman Usiskin, professor of education at the University of Chicago wrote more than twenty years ago on American Educator (Spring 1995) the following:

Usiskin cited the following features of algebra:
  • Algebra is the language of generalization. 
  • Algebra enables the person to answer all the questions of a particular type at one time.
  • Algebra is the language of relationships between quantities
  • Algebra is a language for solving certain kinds of numerical problems.
But most important of all is perhaps conveyed by this thought-provoking parargraph from Elizabeth Staple at PurpleMath:
It might have been assumed, for instance, that Shaniqwa would be pregnant by the time she was fourteen, Jamal would be in prison, José would grow up to be a pool-boy, and Maria would be a maid. So these students would have been assigned to something like "consumer math": low-level math that was presumed to be "useful" for "that sort". Blonde, blue-eyed Tiffany might have been expected to marry well after a short and trivial "career", so she'd have been assigned to bookkeeping. Only Eustace James Whittington III would have had any chance of attending college, so only he would have been steered into the algebra class.
There is indeed one more difference between art and algebra. Algebra can be used as a tracking instrument by either not requiring it or teaching it poorly to students.

Finally, algebra is such a powerful tool that a person not knowing it can be easily taken advantage of by people who do know algebra. If people can do it easily with fake news, they can do as well with twisting numbers.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Accuracy of Students' Surveys

Some colleges still provide questionnaires to students to evaluate their instructors. In educational research, students' self-reports are often used. It is therefore necessary to gauge how accurate these reports are. After all, a teacher knows quite well that even in basic recall tests, not all students get a perfect score. And these tests taken by students are of course high stakes than a simple survey which neither rewards nor punishes a student for accuracy. Since surveys still require some bit of cognitive skills, it is also possible that errors in students' surveys will not be random but systematic. The chance that a student who does not well academically will likewise not be so accurate in answering questions in a survey is high. In an instructor evaluation, it is probably not surprising to see results correlate with the students' academic performance. Yet, these surveys are sometimes used for merit decisions for the instructor. How reliable then are students' voices? In the Philippines, young children are even seen protesting against the Duterte administration.

Above copied from Bobi Tiglao Facebook page

Rosen and coworkers have recently investigated the accuracy of students' surveys. They find that as the questions become more potentially sensitive, accuracy dramatically falls:
We find that students are reasonably good reporters of course-taking patterns but poor reporters of more potentially sensitive questions, including when the student completed Algebra I and the grade earned in the course. We find that lack of accuracy in student survey reports is consistently related to several student characteristics.
The lack of accuracy is an important finding but more troubling is the observation that inaccuracy correlates with student characteristics. And this is vividly seen when students are asked to report the grades they received:

Above copied from Rosen et al.

In the above table, the numbers in bold are the percentages of correct responses for each letter grade. One can see that accuracy correlates with higher grades. However, this is probably much more than just a correlation with a student's cognitive ability since the errors are not random. A student is more likely to report incorrectly a higher grade than a lower one. One can see this with "C" students, they are more likely to report incorrectly a "B" than a "D" (47.7 versus 6.2, respectively). Responding to a survey means revealing something about ourselves. When such information becomes sensitive and potentially reflecting something not so good about ourselves, we are naturally inclined not to answer truthfully.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

What Makes a School Excellent

We hear this very often: "Children must be taught how to think and not what to think". Margaret Mead wrote this statement in "Coming of Age in Samoa". What we do not hear often is what follows: "And because old errors die slowly, they must be taught tolerance, just as to-day they are taught intolerance". As a result, we frequently fall into this false dichotomy of content versus skills. Mead was warning us of indoctrination, not knowledge transfer. On the other hand, it is true that basic education nowadays is usually measured using standardized tests. Schools deemed excellent are those whose students score well in these exams. Nehring and coworkers, however, find in a recent study, "What real high performance looks like",  that in these schools "task demand for a student in the interpersonal and intrapersonal domains was either rare or wholly absent". Seeing that this is the case obviously only fuels further the division between teaching skills versus content, but the study finds a few schools that do help students gain deeper learning. What makes these schools truly excellent may be surprising.

First, the study makes it clear that "21st Century skills" is a misnomer. These skills are not really specific for our current times, These are likewise important for all centuries that came before us and for those that are about to come.

Above copied from Nehring et al. 
Second, what emerges as the essence in high performing schools is this:

The Teacher

This is probably not surprising but we can not deny that we look at what subjects are taught or what facilities are present in gauging whether a school is good or not. The "emerging themes" that Nehring and coworkers find in exclennet schools are not possible with one quick glance at a school. If one wants to find where deep leaning occurs one must look deeply. Here they are:
  • It was the teacher, not the subject. 
  • Teachers focused on disciplinary knowledge. 
  • Teachers were attuned to the social-emotional dynamics of their students. 
  • Teachers adapted their teaching to the moment. 
  • Teachers had a wide repertoire of effective moves. 
  • Instruction was tied to complex assessments. 
  • Teachers built strong relationships with students. 

What makes a school excellent? The answers is an excellent teacher. What makes a teacher excellent? The list is shown above.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Teaching Our Children About Climate Change and Petroleum

Representatives of countries around the world when they met in Paris seemed to be united in acknowledging the perils of a continuing rise in carbon dioxide emissions. Although we are beginning to feel the consequences of higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, next generations are much more likely to face the new challenges climate change brings. How we teach young children regarding this issue is therefore an important task to address. Victoria Hermann in US News offers some advice: "Doomsday narratives about climate change don't work."

Above copied from US News

Hermann is responding to a New York Magazine article by David Wallace-Wells:

Above copied from New York Magazine
Hermann cites a study by Haeffel and coworkers that links hopelessness to a decrease in goal-directed behavior. In this work, depression is shown to correlate with a decrease in our desire to find solutions and make decisions. This is basically what hopelessness entails. Hermann therefore suggests that we focus on positive stories as related by the photo (shown above, Fishermen planting mangroves in Aceh Indonesia to reduce coastal abrasion) that accompanies her article. We can still do something about it. We like happy endings.

We probably should learn a thing or two from the petroleum industry. Children in Oklahoma are provided science lessons sponsored by the oil industry. There are books for young children. One example is Petro Pete's Big Bad Dream. 

Above copied from OERB
This story centers on a young boy's dream of what might happen if there was no petroleum industry: No clothes to wear, no toothbrush, no school bus, no tires on a bicycle, and no soccer ball to play with. The story ends with Pete waking up and realizing that it was only a dream. All the petroleum-based products were back. It was such a happy ending.

We need stories of hope if we want to teach our children. Perhaps, Hermann does have a point:
"We are at a point today where every decision we make counts in deciding what America’s climate change story will be – including the fundamental decision of how we tell climate change stories. Let’s start telling stories of hope and heroes."

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"Errant Science Scholars in the Philippines"

The Commission on Audit (COA) in the Philippines is once again calling for a refund of allowances and other benefits from former students of the Philippine Science High School (PSHS) system who did not enroll in a prescribed science course in college. This time, COA says 115 PSHS graduates owe 18 million pesos. Three years ago, COA wanted 32 million pesos from 121 PSHS students. The math behind these figures somehow does not seem to make sense. However, the fact that the Philippine government expects adolescents to make a life-defining choice at a very young age with serious consequences is much more troubling.

The 2017 report comes from Manila Bulletin while
the 2014 article is from GMANews.
In 2014, COA claimed that 23.5 million pesos were wasted on 48 students who did not finish high school and 73 graduates who did not enroll in the prescribed courses in college. To this number, COA added 8.7 million pesos, an amount the agency suggested could have been generated if PSHS did manage to collect. This partly explains the difference between the two amounts.

The PSHS system provides living allowances. The amount could be as high as 4000 pesos per month if the student comes from a low-income household. Enrolling in PSHS requires passing an entrance exam, thus, selecting only those graduates from elementary school that have good academic background. Upon enrollment, the student and parent signs a contract which includes the following:
“Pursuit of Course in Science and Technology: The scholar-awardee shall pursue a course in science and technology, falling under the specific needs of the manpower development of the Department of Science and Technology and the DOST Council, such as the Basic Sciences, Applied Sciences, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, Biotechnology, and the like...
...Reimburse to the government the full cost of the scholarship in the event that the scholar willfully abandons the scholarship or fails to take up a science or science-related career at the university level. However, the latter may be subject to a waiver on a case-to-case basis.... ”
What the clause "case-to-case basis" means is, of course, ambiguous.

Apart from the strange math COA employs, there are serious mistakes in COA's thinking. First, COA makes the grave assumption that if a student does not pursue a mandated course in college, the money invested by the government on a student's high school education is wasted. PSHS is considered to provide quality secondary education to its students. The main reason why the government puts money into this school system is to raise the status of science and technology in the country. Improving science and technology not only requires scientists but also a citizenry that is knowledgeable in the sciences. Whether or not a scholar actually pursues a career in the sciences, a student educated in PSHS means that the country now has at least one more citizen who is not ignorant of the sciences. Having a solid foundation in the sciences is likewise useful in endeavors outside of basic, applied or biological science. Now, there are real cases of waste in Philippine government spending. One example is the following:

The second grave mistake is the contract itself. In Europe, the right to pursue a freely chosen or accepted occupation is considered a fundamental right. Promoting science and technology indeed requires providing students quality education in the math and sciences. PSHS helps in building a science and technology force for the country by providing an education that hopefully motivates students to pursue a career in the sciences. This is the best we could hope for. After all, basic education should remain a place where students are still discovering not just the world around them but also what their strengths, talents and interests are.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Teaching Politics in a Classroom

Children attending school do not come from a vacuum. Children's values are shaped at home and this equally applies to politics. Children enter their classrooms already with beliefs. We normally equate our beliefs with our identity that in the face of threats against what we hold is true, our normal reaction is to double down and become even more deeply entrenched in our stand. In psychology, such reaction is explained by our intrinsic desire to avoid cognitive dissonance as well as the backfire effect, our tendency to hold onto our beliefs even more strongly when given contradicting evidence. It is therefore not easy to teach politics in a classroom. Polarization of society can be permanent.

Both United States and the Philippines are highly polarized in politics. Going through various Facebook posts makes it really easy to appreciate the theories of cognitive dissonance and the backfire effect. It is then a huge challenge for both basic and higher education to confront extremism which is sadly prevalent in our societies.

Beliefs are handed down from generation to generation. A Gallup poll, for instance, shows how teenagers' political views mirror those of their parents:

Above copied from
Teens Stay True to Parents' Political Perspectives

 And these beliefs also translate to ideological values:

Above copied from
Millenials after 2016

How can education possibly address the problem of a polarized society? Christopher Clark offers a perspective that can help answer this pressing problem. In Examining the Relationship Between Civic Education and Partisan Alignment in Young Voters, Clark saw that a good civic education, a combination of discussions, simulations and community projects; and an open climate where students are entitled to their beliefs but their opinions still need to be justified, can help prevent extremist views. Unfortunately, one without the other leads to extremism. A good civic education is inadequate if the climate is not open. An open climate, where anything goes, is equally bad. There is indeed a fine line such that one may be tempted to simply do nothing. Doing nothing unfortunately will simply propagate the polarization that we already have.

Antonio Contreras, perhaps considered as a polarizing figure by some, recently wrote quite a personal note in his column in Manila Times:
...I now teach at a university where most of my students come from the privileged and the elite. And I take this as an opportunity to expose them to the realities of life. I bring them critical thinking and theories in classroom settings, and then I take them out to the real world through learning activities that enable them to taste and feel poverty, deprivation, powerlessness and the horrors of maldevelopment, elitist exclusion and political corruption.
I would have wished that my detractors should have asked first my current and former students how I conduct my classes. I am strict, but not authoritarian. I exact discipline, but not as a dictator, but as a friend who happens to be their professor.
This could have also disabused their minds about my being a highly partisan demagogue.
My students can attest to the fact that I never use the classroom to impose on them my partisan political views, or to celebrate the President I support, even as some of my colleagues love to use their class time to espouse partisan hatred towards the Marcoses and President Duterte....
I spent my college years at the Ateneo de Manila University, an elite institution similar to de la Salle University where Contreras currently teaches.  While attending Ateneo, I had the opportunity to participate in immersion programs and there were indeed plenty of discussions and activities regarding political and social issues. The climate during the years I spent at the Ateneo in my opinion was not open. I distinctly remember one occasion when some of my classmates and myself started singing a Marcos' tune, March of the New Society or "May Bagong Silang", just to see how our instructors would react. I guess that was also the last time we sang that tune inside the campus.

Contreras is one of the very few people in academia I know who is obviously not pro-Aquino.  It is indeed a fine line for us in education to help prevent extremism. I think having a teacher who does not espouse the beliefs of the elite in an institution of priviliged students is a breath of fresh air. And I hope he remains true to his commitment not to impose on his students his partisan political views.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Towards a More Intelligent Discourse

When arguing in social media, one intention has become prominent, that is, to prevail. We no longer engage in a discussion to learn, but only to be triumphant such that the other side is vanquished. The current opposition in the Philippines, with its bygone years of power, continues to tread the path of divisiveness and its belief of exclusively owning the truth. The past administration has managed to put in place a new curriculum for basic education, complete with the following lofty goal: "To create a functional basic education system that will produce productive and responsible citizens equipped with the essential competencies and skills for both life-long learning and employment.” The same law, Republic Act 10533, however, fails to mention how this desired outcome will be measured. Instead, the law mandates only a review of classroom shortages and other metrics that do not really measure nor gauge whether graduates of the basic education are indeed "productive and responsible and are equipped with essential competencies and skills for both life-long learning and employment". Witnessing such lack of an evidence-based approach in basic education, it is no longer suprising that the Philippines is a country whose policies and programs are divorced from the reality experienced by most of its citizens.

When an evidence-based approach is disregarded, facts become simply what we wish to be. In this climate, an intelligent discourse is impossible. We now only express what we think with the sole objective of showing that others are wrong. Our posts in social media on issues are now merely spawning division and not building a community where ideas are exchanged. This is quite problematic in Philippine society. The current administration of Duterte enjoys popular support. Populism, however, is not guaranteed to be good. There are indeed policies and programs in the current Philippine government that require criticisms. After all, DepEd's K to 12 still needs to be evaluated and monitored.

When discussions become mere contests for supremacy, searching for truth now takes a backseat to winning. And it does not help when it is really obvious that it is not truth that one is after but power. Jonathan Kaiman of the LA Times, wrote near the beginning of this year "An unlikely opponent emerges against the Philippine president’s brutal drug war: the vice president":

Above copied from the LA Times
Kaiman, however, failed to see that for most Filipinos, the rise of Robredo as an opponent against Duterte's drug war is actually Robredo rising as Duterte's opponent. Opposition by Robredo is therefore deemed as a desire of the previous administration to return to power. Without a well-defined method of assessing DepEd's K to 12, I guess, in some sense, we maybe able to see if we, Filipinos, are indeed becoming more productive and responsible.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Teachers Can Speak?

The former secretary of Education Armin Luistro, who is now president of de la Salle University, spoke recently in a forum at Ateneo de Manila University. In his speech, he says teachers should not be satisfied in their comfort zone. Teachers must speak on issues of importance to society. Luistro says that teachers can choose between being a "safe and happy teacher" or being a "Filipino teacher". Of course, Luistro has the following suggestion: "from the imposition of martial law in Mindanao to the growing number of suspected drug users and peddlers killed in the Duterte administration’s crackdown on the illegal drug trade". 

Since opposition to Luistro's K to 12 curriculum was silenced when he was in power, it is not surprising to see on Facebook the following posts:

From Rey Vargas of Parent's Advocacy for Children's Education:

From Rita Cucio:

Since one professor of de la Salle University has been targeted in a petition due to an opinion he expressed, this one is indeed timely. This is what Professor Contreras had to say:

Michael Purugganan joined in this conversation. He recently posted a comment on a previous article on this blog.
...Prof. Contreras may have acted in questionable ways, and he may spout opinions that are equally questionable, but as an academic he needs the protected space to do so. Unless his words or actions clearly constitute a danger to others, we need the freedom within the university to say unpopular things. If only so that their wrongness can be publicly (and academically) debated.
I tried to share my criticisms of DepEd's K to 12 when Luistro was just about to introduce the new curriculum, but the Inquirer would not publish what I wrote unless DepEd was given the chance to comment on what I had to say. That was a classic "catch 22" because DepEd never bothered to respond to my comments. This is one reason behind the birth of this blog.

Luistro, like other members of the former administration, is very selective when in comes to freedom of speech, human rights, and democracy. The fact that he clearly chooses only issues that go against the current Duterte administration only displays that Luistro is politically partisan. Yes, teachers can speak. Teachers should have been allowed to speak long time ago especially when Luistro pushed a grossly half-baked program into Philippine public schools.

We indeed should be able to speak because it is only through discussion that we can in fact determine what is right and what is wrong.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Bullying in Politics and Bullying in Schools

Racism and xenophobia are on the rise worldwide, according to a group of experts reports to the General Assembly of the United Nations. One of the experts, Ricardo Singa III, recommends that freedom of speech ends with hate speech and stereotyping. Ron Anderson notes in Politics Paves Path to Bullying World the extraordinary amount of coverage mainstream media in the United States has given to individuals who are making abusive and hurtful remarks. Such celebrity-like coverage may have made these political bullies serve as role models for both young and adults leading to an increase in bullying and hate crimes in the country. Not every disagreement in politics, however, is bullying. There is abuse that should not be tolerated, but there is also a valid discourse. We cannot label each and every statement as bullying simply because it is not to our liking. Doing so simply "undermines the horror of genuine attacks", writes Martin Williams of the Independent

Bullying is of serious concern in schools. The Centers for Disease Control and Department of Education in the United States offer the following core elements in their definition of bullying: unwanted aggressive behavior, observed or perceived power imbalance, and repetition of behaviors. Anderson offers this definition: Bullying means intimidating or overpowering someone weaker. Bullying targets the weak. Those who are bullied are often perceived as outcasts such as immigrants, minorities, orphans, lesbians, gays, transgenders and bisexuals. Their targets, the weak, make bullying a true nightmare. Bullying should therefore not be trivialized. "We also need to make a distinction between "offensive" and "abusive", concludes Williams.

In the Philippines, I recently came across a petition addressed to the administrators of de la Salle University concerning the online behavior of one its professors, Antonio Contreras. The petition was perhaps catalyzed by this twitter post:

Contreras was reacting to supporters of the vice president, Leonor "Leni" Robredo, who were accusing another government official, Lorraine Badoy, assistant secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, of bullying the vice president. Badoy earlier criticized the vice president for revealing the story of her picking up trash to furnish her daughter's apartment in the United States:

Above copied from Secretary Badoy's Facebook page
Philippine politicians often resort to gimmicks of painting themselves as simple and close to the poor. The above picture shows the vice president sitting beside a luxurious handbag. Contreras' main point is that this is not a case of bullying. Unfortunately, some people miss that important point.

Bullying is an important concern in schools. Citing cases that are not bullying miseducates both adults and children. As Williams states: "It undermines the horror of genuine attacks".