"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

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Breadth versus Depth: A Question of Impact

I often teach General Chemistry in the Spring. While teaching a General Chemistry course this Fall semester, I am now asking myself how much of an impression do I really leave on my students. Some students do come with a very strong background in the subject because of advanced courses taken in high school while some do not. Since General Chemistry is required for admission to medical schools, there are even students enrolled in the class who have not seen Chemistry for so many years. These are students who already have finished a degree but have to return to college to take the required science courses. The Fall course on General Chemistry, guided by popular textbooks, often spends the first couple of months with a quick survey, a smorgasbord of chemical concepts and phenomena. With this breadth, students, including me, actually wonder if Chemistry has a story to tell. Surely, the topics discussed seem totally incohesive. Exams are, of course, taken after a number of lectures have been delivered on these incoherent chapters. Students who have a good background do well in these exams. Obviously, I cannot attribute their performance to my teaching. Students who are less privileged do not do well. I guess I cannot blame myself on that since I only have two months to cover what should have been taken over the course of several years in high school.

The lack of impact should really make me pause. With students coming from different backgrounds, it is obvious that to have some impact, I must teach something new. And as a chemist, I do have something to offer, that is, how I view the world through chemistry. That perspective is through atoms. Thus, one clear alternative is to share with students our philosophy which begins with a deeper discussion of atoms and their structure, a deeper examination of molecules and how their atoms are arranged. To make an impact requires depth. Surprisingly, such an approach provides greater equity. It does not require too much differentiation. No remedial classes are necessary and if concepts already learned in high school are ever covered, these will be introduced within a context, within a story that now makes sense.

Above copied from Canacopegdl

We see gaps not only in freshman year in college. As early as kindergarten, children are entering school with significant differences in academic readiness. Thus, the question of breadth versus depth is already present. Some children, for instance, have a much wider vocabulary than others. How does one teach these children is really no different from the question I am raising with regard to the General Chemistry that I am teaching. Obviously, one needs to address the weakness in vocabulary. But do we shoot for breadth, or do we actually address this with depth? Apparently, research shows that depth is actually more effective. In an article published in The Elementary School Journal, Michael D. Coyne and coworkers find that depth is more effective than breadth eventhough at first, one may think that covering a lot more words is important. The results are summarized in the following table which shows the superiority of extended instruction on just a few words.

Above copied from
Coyne, M. D., McCoach, D. B., Loftus, S., Zipoli, R., Jr. & Kapp, S. (2009). Direct Vocabulary Instruction in Kindergarten: Teaching for Breadth, Versus Depth. Elementary School Journal, 110(1),1-48. 

Students have not only learned the words but have also gained a deeper appreciation of what these words mean even in various contexts.

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Monday, November 20, 2017

Computer Use Leads to Poorer Learning Outcomes

With the arrival of computers, smart phones, and the internet, there was great optimism that technology could finally enhance learning. People easily bought the idea that students would learn better with these new tools and the world wide web was introduced to classrooms all over the globe. With available data, one could now examine if indeed learning had been improved by computers. And the clear answer is "no". Students are in fact performing poorer in both reading and mathematics with the advent of technology in classrooms.

(Please see a previous post on this blog right after the OECD study was published: "Technology Can Amplify Great Teaching But Not Replace Poor Teaching")

In Students, Computers and Learning, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) reports that basic literacy and numeracy skills must come first before students are able to benefit from technology. The use of computers and smart devices both inside and outside the classroom correlates with lower scores in both reading and math. And even top-performing countries like Singapore are showing this trend.

Above copied from
The Straits Times

The OECD report on how computer usage correlates with learning outcomes is summarized in the following figures (all are copied from Students, Computers and Learning):

In mathematics:

In reading:

The negative correlation is significant and when one looks at the frequency of computer usage, the trend becomes clearer even in the new testing area of digital reading:

Mathematics is likewise negatively affected by the use of technology:

Computers obviously can never be a substitute for effective teaching.

And in the past, I did spend my own money to provide computers to elementary school classrooms in the Philippines. I was part of a non-government organization that wanted to help schools in the town of Paete, Laguna. My objective, however, at that point, was not about teaching students computer skills. My goal was to encourage collaboration between students, teachers and parents, which could be made easier with the internet. It takes basic skills to use the internet wisely. Browsing needs to be smart since there are now so many pages on the internet that carry wrong information. Technology can still help improve learning in classrooms, but not in a way where it replaces the teacher. The OECD's summary of their findings are worth keeping in mind:

Saturday, November 18, 2017

21st Century Skills versus Basic Skills

With advances in technology, there is no doubt that we all feel the pressure to keep ourselves updated. Otherwise, we will be rendered obsolete. In the United States, it is no secret that a large number of manufacturing jobs have already disappeared. Human workers in assembly lines are now being replaced by more reliable robots. Even developing countries like the Philippines which have a considerable number of the labor force manning call centers are in danger of losing their jobs to artificial intelligence. We then clamor for our educational systems to pay attention to these changing demands. We ask that schools pay more attention to developing a new set of skills, the 21st century skills. However, the fact remains that one simply cannot build a mansion on top of a weak foundation. And in the case of the Philippines, the problem sorely lies in the lack of equity and quality in basic education.

This point can be more easily understood by citing one concrete situation. It may sound far from labor and economic concepts but nonetheless, it demonstrates a very important aspect in developing and maximizing a country's potential. It is United States soccer. It is one competition in the international arena where the United States mens team always fails to reach the top. The team did not even qualify for the coming World Cup in Russia. Lewandowski puts it nicely in his article in Soccer Politics as he cites Sokolove of the New York Times Magazine:
Most academy programs in the U.S. operate under the pay-for-play model, in which parents choose to invest in their children’s soccer education. But this model has been widely criticized for its inefficiency and inequity, seeing that it disadvantages young soccer prodigies whose parents can’t foot the bill.
A society cannot realize its full potential without promoting equity. The same applies to education. If the Philippines aspires to compete in a global economy then it must develop its entire citizenry. It must provide quality basic education to all and not just to the children of the elite. In the blog of the World Bank on education, there is an article that tackles what education can do in the face of rising robots and artificial intelligence.

Above copied from World Bank Blog on Education

In this article, Patrinos and his colleagues wrote:
"Economists studying the effects of automation are emphasizing the importance of “higher order soft skills” such as creativity and interpersonal skills. However, we believe that most countries still need to focus on getting the basics right."
And the reason is simple. It is the same reason behind the poor performance of the United States in soccer. Lack of equity prevents the realization of the full potential of any society. This lack of equity is unfortunately present in the basic educational system of the Philippines where quality education is provided only to a chosen few. Automation will soon erase low-cost and low-skill labor on which developing countries like the Philippines depend a lot. There is indeed a need for higher education to keep pace with the rest of the world, but as important if not more, quality basic education should be provided to all.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

How Could We Fight Our Own Bias

We can easily proclaim our newly found commitment to diversity. After all, diversity is indeed necessary for realizing the full potential of a society. Yet, this commitment gets washed away as we continue to cling on exercises that only highlight inequity and our inclinations and prejudices. For instance, higher education still considers standardized exam scores for admission even with the knowledge that these exams favor those who are privileged in society. Worse, we browse through a research paper and conclude something that is so far from what the data really suggest. One example is when CNN reported on a study that correlates social behavior in kindergarten with success later as an adult.

Above copied from CNN
The study was authored by researchers from Pennsylvania State University and was published in the American Journal of Public Health. It examined 13- to -19-year longitudinal data that included kindergarten social assessments and later outcomes such as higher education, employment, criminal activity, substance use, and mental health, from low-income neighborhoods in 3 urban sites and 1 rural setting. The results showed that children rated low in social and emotional functioning were less likely to attend college. These children were more likely as adults to commit crimes, to abuse drugs, and suffer mental problems.

If what we see in kindergarten predicts what we will see in the future then the obvious conclusion is that nothing is happening in between. Schools apparently do not matter. But are we not trying to teach children in our classrooms? We have been long made aware of the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. Children can learn. What they are in kindergarten should not decide what they will be in the future. Yet, we still see a strong correlation between the early years of basic education and later outcomes. What is going wrong?

We see gaps showing up early in education, but we really do not do anything about it. Oftentimes, we actually propagate the gap. We strongly count on our instincts and our first impressions. We frequently rely on how little we know in extrapolating what we think will happen. It is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy because we never think of what we really ought to do to address properly the gaps that we see. Social and emotional abilities like cognitive abilities can be taught. We can, first of all, model these. Yet, when we see a child who is causing trouble, we resort to punitive measures that do not really help the child develop these noncognitive abilities. This is the real reason why there is a correlation between how a child behaves in kindergarten and how that child behaves after so many years. We are simply not doing anything and we are in fact propagating our bias. The study is not so much how well kindergarten scores correlate with adult life. The study is more about how we are failing our children.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Wrong Numbers and Fake News

Numbers are important not just to scientists but to everyone since numbers affect social and economic aspects of our lives. Numbers contain information and obviously, wrong numbers contain misinformation. Mistakes do happen and we can be careless with numbers. Amnesty Philippines recently twitted, "President Duterte's invitation to host a human rights summit in the Philippines does not erase the 13M deaths..." An erratum was posted days later stating, "On Amnesty International Philippines' official Facebook and Twitter accounts, the post regarding deaths under the 'war on drugs' was incorrectly written as 13M. The correct post should read 13K." Okay, "M" does lie close to "K" on a computer keyboard. So, it could be an honest mistake. Still, with thoughtful reflection, 13000 deaths under the "war on drugs" is still a gross assumption. It therefore remains a misinformation.

Another recent example is from the Washington Post. The Grade captured a news article last week that incorrectly states how much teachers spend on their own to support learning in their classrooms.

Above copied from The Grade

The reporter, Moriah Balingit, later corrected the article.

Above copied from the Washington Post

The link address to the article still bears the original $1000 figure. So, I guess everything is really not corrected. Similar to the error made by Amnesty International Philippines, Balingit also made a mistake that goes much farther than the numbers. The current rule states, "If you're an eligible educator, you can deduct up to $250 ($500 if married filing jointly and both spouses are eligible educators, but not more than $250 each) of unreimbursed trade or business expenses." The proposed tax bill in its current form eliminates this deduction. Since this is not a tax credit, an educator can therefore reduce his or her tax by about $50. Of course, $50 is still $50, but the article misses entirely the much more important point. Teachers should not be spending their own money to support learning in their classrooms.

The Amnesty International numbers likewise do not correctly inform us. The number of extrajudicial killings (EJK's) in the Philippines under the Duterte administration is grossly misleading. These are alleged numbers. These have not been proven.

Teachers in basic education spend a great deal of both time and effort teaching our children how to make sense out of numbers. These efforts are only wasted when we irresponsibly use numbers to misinform society.

Friday, November 10, 2017

I Hope Our Children Are Not Watching Duterte

In a previous post during the 2016 presidential elections in the United States, I wrote:
"We are the role models for our children. Our children watch and learn from us. A nation's leader may not be necessarily a diplomat, or born with a sweet tongue, but with all certainty, a nation's leader talks to his or her constituents. Months ago, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton reminded us that we need to make sure that our children could be proud of "the choices we are about to make, the goals we will strive for, and the principles we will live by", since we are our children's role models. Every adult is, and a nation's leader is one of the most important role models."
That post also shared thoughts from award-winning author of children books, Candy Gourlay, who spoke about the fears of what leaders say in public, how this can adversely affect our children.  It is truly unfortunate that the current president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, seems to ignore our responsibility in shaping the minds of our young. I will not repeat what Duterte recently said in a meeting with Filipinos in the Vietnamese town city of Da Nang (If you are interested, you can view his speech on Newsweek). I do not think it is something Filipino children should be proud of. His spokesperson, Harry Roque, back in the Philippines, maintained that the remarks were only made in jest. Jest or not, it was clearly not a good role model for our children.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Facebook: Probably a Curse to Philippine Basic Education and Society As a Whole

Facebook is very popular in the Philippines. "All of internet users, about 60 million, in the Philippines use Facebook", according to Tech-in-Asia. Ninety percent of these Facebook users access the platform via a mobile device. It is then natural for some people to rejoice in a new era of sharing information in the country, but there is really no reason to rejoice. As a starter, most of you who are reading what I have posted here on Facebook will not even get to read the entire post on the blog not because you are lazy to read. You simply cannot click the link because if you do try, you will have to pay data charges. Nothing really comes free, except for fake news, propaganda, and sound bites.

Above copied from Tech-in-Asia
One cannot deny the fact that the influence of social media on various aspects of life in the Philippines has indeed remarkably increased. And politics is, of course, no exception. Yes, this may be a reason to rejoice as more people become more politically aware or engaged, yet there are ample good reasons to worry. Although Facebook is used in the Philippines to stay connected with family and friends, Facebook has also become a propaganda machine and has excellently served as a medium for misinformation.

Mong Palatino wrote an insightful article for Global Voices months ago. The piece, Philippines: On Facebook’s free version, fake news is even harder to spot, shows how the free version of Facebook can become a source of misniformation. Palatino wrote, "Facebook Free provides easy ways to communicate and access information. But its strict limitations on access to the broader web, along with its omission of key fact indicators such as images, may ultimately disempower users by giving them incomplete — and sometimes completely inaccurate — information." What is not emphasized here is how dangerous this platform is for propaganda or fake news.

Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews of RAND arrived at a model of how Russians are able to spread misinformation. In The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model, Paul and Matthews listed the following essential elements:

Facebook indeed matches the first two features shown above since it has a wide reach and is compatible with multi-accounts. Its algorithm on how a user's news feed is constructed can be easily influenced by artificial measures of popularity (likes and shares). After all, Facebook relies on advertising revenues so it prioritizes popular posts. Free Facebook then adds the remaining two. Without access to the entire internet, one can be easily divorced from reality and consistency. The rise of social media in the Philippines is not a reason to rejoice. We can be witnessing a perfect storm for propaganda, misinformation, miseducation....

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Preparing Teachers of Mathematics

This is a repost from four years ago. It contains important insights on how teachers of Mathematics affect learning outcomes in Mathematics. It goes without saying that teaching mathematics requires more than just knowing how to do mathematics. If knowing how to do math is all that it takes then I can easily teach my son who is in second grade math. Teachers of mathematics in basic education are not only trained in doing math but also in teaching math. It is therefore reasonable to expect that learning outcomes in math depend on the quality of training teachers of mathematics have received.

The following are some of the exhibits provided by The Teacher Education Study in Mathematics (TEDS-M) in 2008 of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). This is an interesting study because it includes both the Philippines and the United States. It also includes countries that perform very well in international standardized exams in math like Singapore and Taipei. The first one is a qualitative description of the amount of control over higher education institutions responsible for the training of math teachers. With this criterion, the Philippines as well as the United States belong to the group where there is "weak control". The high-performing countries, on the other hand, belong to the "strong control" set.

Above copied from
The Teacher Education Study in Mathematics (TEDS-M) in 2008

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Inequity in Education in the Philippines

To state that there is currently a great inequity in education in the Philippines is accurate. Sadly, my alma mater, Ateneo de Manila University stands as a glaring testament to this gross bias. While 90 percent of families in the Philippines can be considered low-income, one obviously will not find 90 percent of the students enrolled in Ateneo coming from poor families. Poor basic education in both elementary and high school prevents a lot from even entering college. To make matters worse, unlike in the United States, elite universities such as the Ateneo have campuses for both elementary and high school. In the Philippines, catering to the priviliged therefore starts very early.

Schmitt Hall, home of the Department of Chemistry,
where I spent most of my time during college,
above photo copied from the Ateneo de Manila website

Below is a socioeconomic classification of the Philippines in 2009.

Above copied from
1985-2009 Family Income Distribution in the Philippines presented in SWS

Michele Schweisfurth and coworkers write in Developmental Leadership in the Philippines: Educational Experiences, Institutions and Networks:

Vertical differentiation is particularly pertinent to the issue of access, and shapes the educational and life chances of individual Filipinos as well as setting the parameters for who is likely to have the kind of education that places key roles in governance within their reach... ...the system is highly stratified with acute status and quality differences. These status differences are very well understood in the Philippines and both the advantages of attending elite institutions and the non-meritocratic normal routes of access were noted... ... “Here in the Philippines we have first, second and third class universities.”
Inequity in education needs to be addressed. This is vital to a country's progress and development. Favoring privileged students of course helps preserve an oligarchy but it also prevents the realization of talent and potential among the country's population. Studies are clear: Where there is inequity, there is no excellence. Ming Ming Chiu and Lawrence Khoo write in Effects of Resources, Inequality, and Privilege Bias on Achievement: Country, School, and Student Level Analyses:

...Students in countries with higher inequality, clustering of privileged students, or unequal distribution of certified teachers typically had lower scores. Distribution inequality favored privileged students, in that schools with more privileged students typically had more resources. Overall, students scored lower when parent job status had a larger effect on student performance (privileged student bias) in a school or country. These results suggest that equal opportunity is linked to higher overall student achievement....

Monday, November 6, 2017

"How Much Do You Know About English Language Learners?

This weekend, I received an email from Education Week with a link to a quiz that roughly assessed how much I knew about English language learners. There were eight questions but only the first two concerned best teaching practices derived from evidence-based research. The other six questions would require familiarity with current conditions in schools in the United States. I thought it would be useful to share this quiz especially the first two questions since these touched on some of the stubborn myths regarding learning English as a second language. For instance, I am sure there are among us who were raised with the idea that speaking in our mother tongue at home harms our learning of English. This is not true.

Here is the quiz with my answers: (You may want to try the quiz by yourself first using this link: English language learners quiz)