"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

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Seeking Means Paying Attention

Seeking means engagement. When we are looking for something, chances are very high that we will notice what we seek when it comes. It is a technique that I have used when taking reading comprehension exams. I read the questions first before the reading passage. I probably miss details that are not asked but the point is I am able to focus on what is being asked. This happens in reading as I have full control on both pace and effort in reading. Attending a lecture, however, maybe different as a student does not really determine how fast the lecture goes. In addition, unlike reading, a student cannot really rewind a lecture. That is why I often tell my students to look at problems beforehand on topics I am about to discuss during lecture. Without questions, it is more likely that what I share with them in class will go through one ear and exit the other. On the other hand, with questions seeking is more likely to happen. Seeking is a matter of paying attention with engagement and awareness. And since a student cannot turn back time during a lecture, a student needs to attend closely to the entire lecture. Of course, all of this is simply a hypothesis. However, with recent research, it is now based on evidence.

In the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, Shana K. Carpenter and Alexander R. Toftness find that prequestions do help in enhancing memory. They also find that there is also improvement on topics that are not even prequestioned:

Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition
Volume 6, Issue 1, March 2017, Pages 104–109

The Effect of Prequestions on Learning from Video Presentations 

Shana K. Carpenter and Alexander R. Toftness

ABSTRACT
Asking students questions before they learn something has been shown to enhance memory for that information. Studies demonstrating this prequestion effect in reading tasks have shown that such prequestions may not enhance—and could even impair—learning of information that was not prequestioned, possibly due to learners’ tendencies to selectively process the prequestioned information at the expense of non-prequestioned information. The current study explored the effects of prequestions on learning from videos, where such a selective processing strategy would be less likely to occur. Participants viewed an educational video and either answered prequestions prior to viewing each of three segments (Prequestion Group) or viewed the same video without answering prequestions (Control Group). A later test revealed a significant advantage for the Prequestion Group over the Control Group, and this pertained to both prequestioned and non-prequestioned information. Thus, prequestions appear to confer both specific and general benefits on video-based learning.

The results are summarized in the following figure:

Above copied from
Shana K. Carpenter and Alexander R. ToftnessJournal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition 6 (2017) 104–109
On prequestioned information, students perform best, but surprisingly, even with non-prequestioned information, they also perform better than students who are not prequestioned. Prequestions therefore force students to pay close attention to the entire video. Now I can tell my students that my recommendation is actually based on evidence.


Blogger Tricks

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Those Three Stripes on an Academic Gown

A person who receives a doctorate degree gets to wear an academic dress with three stripes. During the commencement exercise, the new PhD degree holder likewise gets a hood. The gown is the culmination of painstaking years of academic and research work. It is a symbol that someone has contributed to the advancement of human knowledge. Not everyone who wears such a special robe and hood, however, has gone through the same years of graduate school education. Zachary Crockett writes in Priceonomics:
But for others present on commencement day, the struggle is not so real. Joining the students on stage, celebrities and business moguls — Mike Tyson, Kylie Minogue, Oprah, Ben Affleck, and Bill Gates among them — flock to college campuses to receive “honorary” doctorate degrees. Unlike the students, these luminaries are given a free pass: universities allow them to bypass all of the usual requirements. Though these degrees are more ornamental than functional, the practice of handing them out stems from a somewhat ignoble past.
Even Kermit the Frog has received an honorary degree from Southampton College.

Above copied from Muppet Wiki
Crockett therefore concludes that universities and colleges award honorary degrees for any of the following reasons: money, influence or publicity. Some universities do not give honorary degrees and one example that Crockett cites is the University of Virginia:
...when Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, he explicitly banned honorary degrees, fearing that they would be awarded based on “political or religious enthusiasms rather than on scholarly considerations....
In the Philippines, honorary degrees are under the supervision of the country's Commisssion on Higher Education. Rappler notes:
The commission also has the prerogative to deny or withdraw the conferment of an honorary degree if the submitted credentials are fabricated, or "when the recipient's conduct or stand on certain issues contravenes public morals and policy."
Recently, I have seen several posts on social media from alumni of the University of the Philippines objecting to a plan of awarding an honorary degree to President Rodrigo Duterte. The issue is now settled since the president has stated no interest in receiving such a degree. Antonio Contreras of the Manila Times, however, has this to say:


The university, of course, is not a judicial body. It cannot and should not render judgment. One example of a student protesting the planned conferment of an honorary degree to Duterte shows not just an indictment but also a judgment against the president:

Above copied from Rappler
Across the Pacific and several hundred years later, the fears of Thomas Jefferon ring true.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Do Computers Affect the Social Development of Our Children?

Our children maybe spending less time playing outside because of computers. We are concerned that due to screen time, our children are perhaps spending less time with their peers. The lack of face-to-face interactions due to time spent alone on a computer may lead to children not developing socially. We even see the warning signs in social media. These, however, are only our own fears. It is important to look at the evidence. And the latest research actually shows that these concerns are unfounded.

Above copied from Imgur
In a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic ResearchRobert W. Fairlie and Ariel Kalil find that children who have access to a computer "are more likely to report having a social networking site, but also report spending more time communicating with their friends and interacting with their friends in person." In addition, "There is no evidence that computer ownership displaces participation in after-school activities such as sports teams or clubs or reduces school participation and engagement."

The study involves 1000 grade 6-10 students. Five hundred are given computers and effects are measured after a year of having a computer. So, perhaps, the time is too short to see long term effects, but the self-reported times spent on the computer of the children in the study are indeed increased when a computer is made available. Thus, although more time has been spent on computers, this does not come with less time spent with friends. This does not come with less school participation and engagement. The authors do offer some guesses - less time eating, less time sleeping, or less time with parents. The last option is, of course, troublesome. Computers may in fact be extending how much our children interact with their peers while sacrificing the time they spend, with us, their parents. These are the adolescent years and if our children are only influenced by their peers and less by their parents, this probably should be our concern.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Explicitly Teaching Reading Comprehension

Reading is taught in the early elementary years. Reading difficulties during the early years can arise from lack of fluency, limited vocabulary, or poor word recognition. Interventions are often designed to address these various components of reading. Going further, however, students also need to understand what they are reading. Students should be able to derive meaning from text. This is how reading becomes a vehicle for further learning. One might therefore ask whether students with reading difficulties can benefit from interventions that focus on reading comprehension. The answer, according to research, is "yes".

A paper scheduled to be published in the Journal of Educational Psychology specifically looks at an intervention called Passport to Literacy and finds significant improvements in reading comprehension for fourth grade students that have reading difficulties. The intervention is done daily for 30 minutes over 25 weeks. How this intervention differs from others lies on its emphasis on teaching students strategies for reading comprehension:

Above copied from
Wanzek, J., Petscher, Y., Otaiba, S. A., Rivas, B. K., Jones, F. G., Kent, S. C., Schatschneider, C., & Mehta, P. (2017, March 27). Effects of a Year Long Supplemental Reading Intervention for Students With Reading Difficulties in Fourth Grade. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000184

Wanzek and coworkers describe the comprehension section in the following:
...during the second component, Read to Understand, students were taught the meaning of vocabulary words introduced during Word Works, as well as comprehension skills and strategies to apply while reading fiction and nonfiction. For example, lessons offered explicit instruction in previewing, setting purpose, text structure and evaluation, making inferences and taking perspectives, drawing conclusions, author’s purpose, sequencing, main idea, summarizing, independent reading fix-up strategies, teacher and reader questioning, and making connections within and across texts.
This intervention involves explicit instruction. In addition, each class in this intervention is a small group, four to seven students. And from a relatively large sample (almost 500 students), the conclusions are as follows:
Findings indicated the treatment significantly outperformed the comparison on reading comprehension (Effect Size = 0.38), but no overall group differences were noted on word reading or vocabulary. Students’ initial word reading scores moderated this effect. Reading comprehension effects were similar for English learner and non-English learner students.
There is a lot of doubt regarding reading comprehension interventions. Daniel Willingham is convnced that reading comprehension strategy instruction does not really enhance comprehension skills. Willingham agrees that teaching strategies is useful, but should be brief and explicit. He however offers another possible reason why reading comprehension instruction is working:
...Reading is not just about decoding; you are meant to understand something. The purpose is communication. This message may be particularly powerful for struggling readers, whose criterion for “understanding” is often too low (Markman, 1979). One of us works extensively with struggling adolescent readers who frequently approach the task of reading as getting to the last word on the page....
The study by Wanzek and coworkers focuses on struggling readers and indeed the authors include the following in what they think are some of the limitations of their study.
We also recruited schools that were diverse and served students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, so our findings might not generalize to schools serving students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. The majority of our ELs in our study were Hispanic and our findings may not generalize to students from other language backgrounds, particularly those with orthographies that are very different than English. Further, effect sizes are interpretable relative to the comparison condition in the participating schools where very few struggling readers received supplemental interventions as a part of their typical practice.
Finally, whether these findings are transferable or not is obviously dependent on how well the intervention is implemented since explicit instruction is an essential part. In the study, trained research personnel (not classroom teachers) have provided the intervention.



Saturday, April 15, 2017

Should We Believe Educational Research?

One of the questions I asked in a survey of learning myths is this:  

You have a test coming up. What’s the best way to review the material?

  • Circle key points in the textbook.
  • Review relevant points of the lecture in audio format.
  • Take an informal quiz based on the material.
The responses I have received so far draw the following picture:


It appears to be a tie between highlighting parts of a textbook and taking a practice exam. Educational research is quite clear with regard to this question. Taking practice tests appears to be one of the most effective ways to learn as seen in the following figure:

Above copied from Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques. John Dunlosky, Katherine A.Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan, Daniel T.Willingham. Psychological Science in the Public Interest Vol 14, Issue 1, pp. 4 - 58. First published date: January-08-2013


The difference is clear, students who took practice tests perform better than those who simply restudied. The positive effect of testing on learning has also been proclaimed in an article by Annie Murphy Paul in Scientific American:

Above copied from Scientific American

Dunlosky and coworkers, the authors of the article in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, however, still expressed some caution regarding these findings:
"Regarding recommendations for future research, one gap identified in the literature concerns the extent to which the benefits of practice testing depend on learners’ characteristics, such as prior knowledge or ability. Exploring individual differences in testing effects would align well with the aim to identify the broader generalizability of the benefits of practice testing."
Studies on testing effects have yet to employ controls for students' characteristics. A recent paper on testing effects in fact still mentions this limitation:
"One methodological point is worth revisiting: The inability to randomly assign participants to conditions poses a potential limitation to our conclusions." 
The research article, published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, talks about studies that took place during four semesters in college. For each semester, an experiment is performed in a general psychology class. The four studies are as follows:

Study 1: A standard testing section (two midterms and two pop quizzes) versus a frequent testing section (four midterms, four pop quizzes)
Study 2: A standard testing section (two midterms and two pop quizzes) versus a frequent testing section (eight short in-course exams)
Study 3: A standard testing section (two midterms and two pop quizzes, plus unannounced low-stakes quizzes) versus a frequent testing section (eight short in-course exams plus unannounced low-stakes quizzes)
Study 4: A standard testing section (two midterms and two pop quizzes, plus announced ungraded quizzes) versus a frequent testing section (eight short in-course exams plus announced ungraded quizzes)

The results are summarized in the observed performance of the students in the final exam:


There is a marked difference between the above recent results and those presented in Butler (2010). One should keep in mind, however, that in the recent study, the comparison is not really between practice testing and restudy, but between taking two exams versus four or eight exams before the final exam. Thus, there is testing even in the standard format. Practice tests are therefore highly beneficial, but the effect of how often tests are given is much smaller. The two studies are therefore very different and one should not automatically add "frequent" just because practice testing has been found to improve learning. It is also important to note that in Butler (2010) what was employed was "repeated testing" and not just "frequent testing".




Thursday, April 13, 2017

Table of Hope

Today is Holy Thursday. This is a repost of Table of Hope: A Reflection.


This song was written in New York City
Of rich man, preacher, and slave
If Jesus was to preach what He preached in Galilee,
They would lay poor Jesus in His grave.
                                                                           - Woody Guthrie

Monday, April 10, 2017

Poverty and School Dropouts

The disparity is clear. The Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) shows that about half of school dropouts in the Philippines belong to the lowest 25 percentile in income. These families comprise only a fourth of the Philippine society yet their children make up half of school leavers. Poor children comprising the majority of out-of-school children, however, more than highlights the dramatic impact of poverty on basic education. The sad plight of poor children also marks the great inequity in Philippine schools. Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg just visited Thailand and pointed out that the biggest problems in Thailand's basic education are inequity and lack of competent teachers. These problems obviously apply likewise to the Philippines. Sadly, instead of addressing these problems, the Philippine government simply made the system much more inequitable with its new K to 12 curriculum.

PIDS provides the following to summarize their most recent findings:


Most dropouts lack interest. Poverty restricts one's view of the future. Poor children have less opportunities. They have less time and resources to discover their passion and interests. Their parents are regularly worried regarding basic needs, shelter and food. And most importantly, poor children go to schools different from schools attended by children of the elite and education policy makers. In the schools attended by the poor, the curriculum is too narrow, one that no longer includes the arts, music, recess and sports, but only focuses on math, reading and social studies. This does not specifically cater to the needs of poor children.

Disabilities or illness has also become a major reason behind leaving school. A gender gap, more boys are quitting school, is equally alarming. The PIDS is reporting that there is a drop in the number of school leavers. The accuracy of this comparison, however, is questionable since the reporting system in 2008 is different from that of 2015. In addition, the decrease in the dropout rate is seen primarily in the elementary years.

What is clearly more reliable than the absolute numbers is the demographic data of the school dropouts since this is not dependent on counting dropouts correctly. A representative slice of school leavers can already yield this information. In these terms, the following requires attention. Disabilities or illness has now become a major reason behind leaving school. Why this has happened is perplexing. A gender gap, more boys are quitting school, is equally alarming. The situation therefore remains disconcerting.

Above copied from
Philippine Institute for Development Studies. What do statistics say about basic educationin the Philippines? 2016.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Love for Math

My seven-year old daughter loves mathematics. It shows. After she uses the shower, I often notice scribbles on the glass door of geometric figures as well as numerical equations. She has a high math self-concept. After all, her father has a doctorate in chemistry, her mother has a doctorate in pharmacy, and her grandmother has a degree in physics. There is really no reason to have anxiety in math in our home. In school, my daughter is also fortunate to have a supportive teacher. Recently, her teacher sent me an email saying, "Second graders have been working on making 4 digit numbers in different ways. Your daughter did a great job of making this number by drawing base ten blocks! I am so proud of how hard she is working in math." Her email came with the following photo:

My daughter looks happy as she shows her teacher how she represents 4217 with cubes as 1000's,
squares as 100's, lines as 10's, and dots as 1's (photo taken by her teacher)
The elementary years are indeed crucial for a girl's attitude towards mathematics. A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the Unites States of America (PNAS-USA) highlights how math-anxious first- and second-grade female teachers affect a female student's math achievement and self-concept. In this paper, the authors write:
By the school year’s end, female teachers’ math anxiety negatively relates to girls’ math achievement, and this relation is mediated by girls’ gender ability beliefs. We speculate that having a highly math-anxious female teacher pushes girls to confirm the stereotype that they are not as good as boys at math, which, in turn, affects girls’ math achievement. If so, it follows that girls who confirm traditional gender ability beliefs at the end of the school year (i.e., draw boys as good at math and girls as good at reading) should have lower math achievement than girls who do not and than boys more generally. This is exactly what we found.
Unfortunately, such beliefs apparently become solid and the gender gap in math then continues in the later years of basic education such that reforms in high school hardly affect math self-concept. In a study scheduled to be published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, this problem is illustrated in the case of thousands of students in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg in Germany. Starting in 2002, all students in this state are required to take advanced math courses. Prior to this reform, males outnumber females in the enrollment in these advanced math courses. Requiring everyone to take advanced math courses therefore addresses the gender imbalance. What the researchers find regarding the effects of this reform are summarized below:

Above copied from
Hübner, N., Wille, E., Cambria, J., Oschatz, K., Nagengast, B., & Trautwein, U. (2017, March 27). Maximizing Gender Equality by Minimizing Course Choice Options? Effects of Obligatory Coursework in Math on Gender Differences in STEM. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000183

There is clearly an improvement in math performance for female students after requiring everyone to take advanced level math courses. However, there is not much change in self-concept as well as interests. The above helps emphasize that addressing gender differences in math needs to be addressed early. As the authors of the PNAS study note:
Interestingly, math anxiety can be reduced through math training and education. This suggests that the minimal mathematics requirements for obtaining an elementary education degree at most US universities need to be rethought. If the next generation of teachers—especially elementary school teachers—is going to teach their students effectively, more care needs to be taken to develop both strong math skills and positive math attitudes in these educators.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Math Anxiety and Math Performance

Being anxious about math correlates with lower performance in math. This is apparently true across different countries as reported in a paper published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science. The negative relationship between anxiety and performance is, of course, not exclusive to math. In martial arts, for instance, both somatic and cognitive anxiety can produce about 80 percent discrimination between winners and losers. A good karate master like the one my children have recognizes the importance of instilling confidence in martial arts students. After all, either freezing or closing one's eyes during a match can easily spell defeat. A positive and growth mindset is clearly necessary and a master does this best by example. Interestingly, research strongly suggests a connection "between adult role models and children’s math anxiety and math achievement". Children whose parents are anxious about math are likely to exhibit anxiety in math and children taught by teachers who are anxious about math learn less in math.

Above copied from
The Math Anxiety-Performance Link. Alana E. Foley, Julianne B. Herts, Francesca Borgonovi, Sonia Guerriero, Susan C. Levine, Sian L. Beilock. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol 26, Issue 1, pp. 52 - 58. First published date: February-08-2017
How anxiety affects performance is also seen to directly correlate with high performance. Students who do well in math are more likely to see their scores go down with anxiety. This relationship suggests that anxiety may be forcing good students to use inefficient strategies. Students may not be able to think clearly when anxious.

The paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science does not provide clear evidence behind a bidirectional relationship between anxiety and performance, that is, not only does anxiety leads to poor performance but poor performance also leads to greater anxiety. However, it cites studies that indicate math anxious individuals have difficulty with basic math tasks that are typically learned before elementary school entry, such as judging the magnitudes of pairs of numbers.

My son is entering middle school this coming Fall. In a short chat with his future math teacher, the teacher shows me a set of arithmetic questions that he wants my son to answer. There is a time limit to answer all 70 arithmetic questions, 5 minutes. The purpose is to check fluency. Such a perspective is actually similar to the one taken by my son's karate master. There are practices and drills in karate that help a student develop instincts since in a karate match there is really little time to think therefore some moves and responses need to be automatic. My son's future math teacher speaks in similar terms - a student who has to spend quite some time adding, subtracting and multiplying has no time to see the beauty in math.

Teaching math clearly requires confidence and good role models. Differences in math anxiety across countries also point to the significance of cultural context. Unfortunately, Jo Boaler of Stanford University seems fixated on the idea that the main cause of math anxiety is the way math is taught. In the Hechinger Report, Boaler writes the opinion:
Our future depends on mathematical thinking, but math trauma extends across our country – and the world – due to the ineffective ways the subject is often taught in classrooms, as a narrow set of procedures that students are expected to reproduce at high speed... ...timed tests, speed pressure, procedural teaching – are the reasons for the vast numbers of children and adults with math anxiety.
Boaler cites the same paper from Current Directions in Psychological Science to support her opinion when the paper barely mentions competitive performance and testing environments as possible causes of math anxiety. Students from the East Asian countries perform very well in international math exams yet show high levels of anxiety. Here, there maybe important cultural differences. The higher academic achievement of students in East Asian countries is often attributed to the effort these children and their parents invest in studying. Stankov, in a paper published in Learning and Individual Differences, wrote:
Confucian Asian culture has a long history of high regard for learning and achievement and emphasis on effort to achieve academically. Its collectivist aspect underscores relationships, family closeness, and social harmony. Putting together these two salient features of Confucian Asian culture leads to the perception that individuals strive to achieve not only for their personal success but also for honor of their family and society. A finding from PISA 2003 that Confucian Asian students expressed higher levels of anxiety and self-doubt can be interpreted in terms of this unique cultural aspect of Confucianism. That is, in the minds of Confucian Asian students, the distinction between the self and one's family is not clear-cut and self achievement is also seen as family's achievement. Consequently, Confucian Asian students become aware of and learn to take seriously the implications and consequences of their academic success and failure. From this vantage point, the internal pressure for academic achievement is probably higher in Confucian Asian societies than in the other parts of the world.
Surprisingly, although levels of math anxiety are higher in these Asian countries, their scores are still among the top in the world. Stankov suggests that Confucian Asian students " can tolerate higher anxiety without a detrimental effect on performance — i.e. they are more resilient (“tougher”)." Resiliency may be coming not from the fact that these children are trying to outcompete each other but from their desire to honor their family and community.

Nevertheless, there is no evidence, contrary to what Boaler insists, that anxiety is largely due to the way we teach math. Instead, math anxiety in our children is mainly caused by our (We, teachers and parents) own anxiety and fears about math.


Monday, April 3, 2017

A Cane Or A Belt, What Do These Really Teach Our Children

Singapore is prosperous. Students in Singapore do very well in international standardized exams. Canes are used for discipline in Singapore. It then follows that corporal punishment is good for our children. Research however says otherwise. The most effective parenting style is responsive and warm, not punitive. This effective style is authoritative, distinct from authoritarian which also demonstrates a high level of control but in a negative way. Punishment is key to enforcing rules in authoritarian parenting.


Above copied from
Parenting Styles, Bringing Out The Best In Your Child
Latest research supports what has been known for quite sometime now. Authoritative parenting leads to better academic outcomes. In "The Role of Authoritative and Authoritarian Parenting in the Early Academic Achievement of Latino Students" authoritative parenting in Mexican and Dominican Republic children is correlated with academic and social-emotional school readiness, both of which predicted higher achievement at the end of first grade. This makes sense since all that spanking really does is to teach a child that hurting someone you love is acceptable. Children disciplined with physical punishment only become aggressive towards others. These children are also unable to develop self-esteem and proper social behavior.

One therefore may ask why Singapore seems successful. The reason perhaps lies in the foundation of its authoritarianism, which is meritocracy. Jiafeng Chen writes in the Harvard Political Review:
Meritocracy lies at the heart of both the political legitimacy of Singaporean authoritarianism and the culture of Singaporean society. It legitimizes authoritarian rule by maintaining an elite based on academic and professional success, rather than on class, gender, or ethnicity.
One can then easily argue that it is not the authoritarianism that plays very well in Singapore, it is really meritocracy. Of course, when competent and good people are in power, one can expect both efficiency and lack of corruption.

There is another type of parenting distinct from both authoritarian and authoritative. It is called permissive. Children get their way most of the time without any control from the parents. This parenting style is as bad as authoritarian.

The Philippines is currently facing a serious drug problem. The past Aquino administration was permissive. The current administration of Duterte has chosen to be authoritarian in its war against drugs. Whether this approach will be as successful as in Singapore still needs to be seen. Meritocracy is not really central in Philippine culture and politics. There are some people in the Philippines who clamor for the return of a dictator. There are those who wish to see corporal punishment or required military training in schools. These approaches do not work with incompetent and corrupt leaders. Sadly, both schools and government in the Philippines are deeply immersed in both corruption and incompetence.