"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, January 19, 2017

Why a Trump Presidency Worries Me

It is not his overwhelming presence on Twitter. It is not his bullying characteristics although that should already be worrisome. What worries me more is his perspective on solving problems. He often solves a problem for some, but not for all. This is probably an outgrowth of making deals as a businessman. Self-interest is his categorical imperative. Nowhere is this more evident in his approach to solving problems in basic education. His answer is school choice, fully embodied in his choice for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos:

Devos clearly demonstrates a lack of knowledge of current issues in basic education. This is indeed forgivable especially for one who is willing to learn. The scary part is that Devos is a very strong advocate for school choice. Devos believes that parents should have the right to choose schools for their children. Being able to make a choice, however, can only generate a good result if such a choice is well-informed. If Devos herself seems very lacking in knowledge regarding education, how can we expect that parents actually have the knowledge to choose correctly schools for their children. Quality education remains elusive even to those who are greatly immersed in education research.

Last night, I visited the middle school my son intends to attend in the coming school year. It was curriculum night and I had the opportunity to browse through the courses and programs the school currently offers. I had a tour of the classrooms and facilities. I had been writing this blog for years now so I am not as ill-informed as Devos is with regard to public basic education. However, I am not comfortable in making a choice for what school my child should attend because I am aware of the factors I would use in making that choice. I am going to compare. And I will compare based on my perception of teacher quality, facilities and peers. This is purely based on self-interests and not on quality education. And this is totally misguided. It assumes that schools are worse than others because of the teachers, the facilities, and the students.  Why this is wrong can be seen by simply assuming that all parents exercise such choice. Summed over all these individual choices is really the death of the public school system. The sum only exacerbates inequality, inefficiency and irrationality especially when these choices are purely based on prejudices. This is Behavioral Economics.

Kern Alexander talked about this in the Journal of Education Finance:
... If parental choice is not based on quality education and instead the school choices are rooted in race, religion, wealth, ethnicity, etc., then you will have “imperfect competition.” Imperfect competition would result in the overall decline in the quality of education....
The Trump presidency with its penchant to solve problems by self-interest is truly problematic. Michelle Roya Rod constructed a list of characteristics of good problem solvers in the Huffington Post. One of these characteristics is as follows:
They don’t create problems for others: They understand that to have their problem solved they can’t create problems for others. Good problems solvers who create fair solutions make a conscious effort not to harm others for a self-interest intention. They know such acts will have long term consequences even if the problem is temporarily solved.
Trump and DeVos are basically doing the opposite. They are both making a conscious effort to harm others for a self-interest intention. This is what scares me.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

CHED Chief Is Neither Anti-Student nor Anti-People

Militant youth groups are obviously misguided in their recent criticisms of the chairperson of the Philippines' Commission on Higher Education (CHED), Patricia Licuanan. Higher education is evidently dissimilar from basic education. Basic education is compulsory while higher education is a choice. Every child therefore has the right to enter either a primary or secondary school. Colleges and universities are obviously different in this aspect as these institutions are selective. And the selection comes not so much because of what colleges do but because of what has happened in basic education. Patricia Licuanan is correct in stating, "The poorest of the poor are not yet in college. They have been knocked out long ago and enrollment of the poorest quintile in higher education is only 8 percent. So it’s not going to benefit the poor." Access to higher education is therefore not limited because of tuition, but mainly because of the failures of basic education. 

Above copied from The Inquirer

Higher education is similar to basic education in the sense that both require resources. One may also point out that both stand to benefit society as a whole. There are, however, differences that are substantial between basic and higher education even in terms of public responsibility and public good. One difference lies in the costs. Higher education demands a lot more in terms of resources. An institution of higher learning requires that its faculty remains at the forefront of human knowledge. Instructors in colleges are therefore expected to continue scholarly and research work. The depth and specialization associated with higher education means that instructors at this level have been trained on the subjects of the courses they teach at a high level. Quality in higher education assumes that instructors either have advanced degrees or extensive experience in what they are about to teach. In terms of public good, the difference between basic and higher education lies in how much the individual benefits. Basic education is essential for a society to thrive as it requires a functionally literate citizenry. Society therefore benefits a lot from basic education. With higher education, the individual benefits begin to rise above societal benefits. With this in mind, it is only natural to expect that individuals invest in their higher education, meaning they should cover some of the costs. These are arguments against providing college with free tuition.

Rosos, the leader of the League of Filipino Students, the group that criticizes CHED chairperson Licuanan, maintains however that higher education is a right: "Providing free public education must cover every Filipino youth regardless of their background. There should be no conditions in providing free public education." Rosos is sadly mistaken in equating higher education to basic education. Worse, Rosos fails to see the real reason why access to higher education is not available to all. Unfortunately, repeating what Licuanan said: "The poorest of the poor are not yet in college, They have been knocked out long ago," seems inadequate in bringing some sense to these militant group. Perhaps, this is simply a symptom of how the education system in the Philippines has failed its youth.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

"What You Don't Know Won't Hurt You"

This is what Dave Ramsey of Financial Peace Revisited thinks about this saying: “That stupid saying "What you don't know can't hurt you" is ridiculous. What you don't know can kill you. If you don't know that tractor trailer trucks hurt when hitting you, then you can play in the middle of the interstate with no fear - but that doesn't mean you won't get killed.” I guess we should fix that saying then to "What you don't know can hurt you". But in education, we could go further and write a saying that provides a useful message: "What you think you know but actually do not know will hurt you."

We are often ignorant of our own incompetence. This is according to a study published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science:

Above copied from
Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12, 83–87.

It does appear that top performers tend to be a bit modest while bottom performers greatly exaggerate their abilities. Dunning et al. call it a "double curse" - those who do not have the knowledge or skills are likewise those who cannot gauge their own knowledge or skills. 

German researchers took the above study to another level to find a way to correct overconfident judgments in learning. In a paper published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, they find that by informing college students of the dangers of making overconfident judgments of learning, the students become more cautious of deciding how much they actually understand a lesson. With greater comprehension monitoring or a more honest acknowledgement of one's understanding of a lesson, the student is presumably more open to additional explanations. Indeed, with less overconfident judgments, a student even improves academic performance. Unfortunately, this appears to be true only for college students. High school students, in contrast, continue to perform poorly even with the acknowledgement that they still need to learn. Apparently, high school students (at least in this study) need to be taught as well effective strategies to overcome comprehension problems. What is effective is not rereading the material. The strategies provided to the student are explaining content using only one’s own words and thinking content through using one’s own examples. With training on these strategies, the high school students also show improvement in learning outcomes.

Thus, thinking we know something when we do not prevents learning, but in addition, as we find ourselves not understanding something, we need strategies that will not allow us to fool ourselves again that we know something when we do not. That strategy starts with requiring us to explain what we know to ourselves and to others.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Exercise Improves the Academic Performance of Children with ADHD

My son's daily schedule in his elementary school includes an hour-long period for recess and lunch. At the end of the day, he may not easily remember what he had for lunch, but what happened during recess is something he could recall without difficulty. In fact, he tells me that he has scored a dozen goals in soccer since the start of the academic year. He may not share with me readily what transpired during math period but I am certain that at the end of the day when I pick him up from school I will be briefed on the highlights from the day's recess. Recess makes my son's day in school. It is his favorite period. And it is the period that has helped him a lot academically.

It has become evident especially from the work pioneered by Charles Hillman at the University of Illinois that exercise heightens brain activity. The figure below shows this clearly:

Electrophysiological plots representing brain processing
capacity and mental workload (P3 amplitude) during
cognitive tasks that require executive control in children
in the experiment and control groups. Red represents
the greatest amplitude, and blue the lowest.
(Hillman et al, Pediatrics/The Atlantic)
Exercise not only improves brain processing but also academic outcomes. The specific results are:
Analysis revealed that both children with ADHD and Healthy Match-Control children exhibited enhanced performance following exercise on tests of reading comprehension (115.2 ± 2.2) and arithmetic (112.5 ± 2.7) relative to following the seated reading condition (reading comprehension: 110.1 ± 1.8, p < .001, Cohen’s d = 1.58; arithmetic: 110.0 ± 3.1, p = .03, Cohen’s d = 1.25)
How exercise exactly benefits academic performance remains an active area of research. A recent systematic review of the mechanisms by which exercise affects mental health and performance suggests three ways:

Above copied from
Lubans D, Richards J, Hillman C, et al. Physical Activity for Cognitive and Mental Health in Youth: A Systematic Review of Mechanisms. Pediatrics.2016;138(3):e20161642
It should be made clear that what is not fully known is the mechanism, but the fact that exercise improves mental performance and health is already established. Play and physical activity are very important for a growing child. This is the primary reason why homework in the elementary years is not beneficial. This is also evidently the big reason why recess is one of the most important periods in a school day.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Learning on Your Own, Learning with Others, Learning from Examples

What is the best way to learn? This is an important question for educators. Some are attracted to the notion of inquiry-based learning, in which students are given the opportunity to solve problems on their own. The notion of collaboration is also attractive. In this case, it is hoped that students learn from each other when they work together. Lastly, there is the traditional option: learning by example. A paper scheduled to be published in the Journal of Educational Psychology addresses this question by performing a controlled experiment in Year 7 mathematics classes in an Indonesian school in Magetan, East Java. Their results suggest that learning from examples works best. In addition, students learning collaboratively is found to be somewhat detrimental when students are learning from worked examples.

The above findings are summarized in a figure provided by the authors:

Above copied from
Retnowati, E., Ayres, P., & Sweller, J. (2016, December 19). Can Collaborative Learning Improve the Effectiveness of Worked Examples in Learning Mathematics?. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000167
One of the reasons why worked examples are more effective than requiring students to solve problems on their own is the high cognitive load required by inquiry. This should not be surprising. As adults, on do-it-yourself projects are home, it makes the task a lot easier if we are shown examples on how a project is done. It is way more difficult to figure out how things work from scratch. The fact that individual learning seems superior to collaborative learning when it comes to worked examples demonstrates that peer effects can be negative. A worked example shows how a problem is correctly solved. This can be cancelled if a more influential peer during collaboration misunderstands the worked example. Working together as opposed to working individually is better when it comes to inquiry-based learning. However, this appears to be true only with low-complexity tasks. When the task becomes complex, working together is no different from working individually presumably because no one in the group is truly able to address the complicated task. With multi-step tasks in algebra, it appears that learning by example is more effective.

We often raise our eyebrows on traditional teaching. Such attitude, unfortunately, is not based on evidence.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Should We Give "Zero" As A Grade?

"How does allowing a student to opt out of a program to provide him or her with assistance teach responsibility? If a student is truly going to enter a sink-or-swim situation in higher education, the best preparation is to teach the student to swim — to provide the student with the knowledge, skills and habits essential to success in that situation — rather than allow the student to sink first in high school", Richard DuFour writes in his book In Praise of American Educators: And How They Can Become Even Better. Jay Mathews of the Washington Post took notice of this statement and called it "brilliant" in his column on education. But there is one comment that caught my attention on Mathews' article. Part of it says "We make too many excuses in modern America, we give too many second chances. Penalties and consequences exist for a reason. Carrots alone don't work, you need the stick too. And sometimes people need to hit bottom before they get better. There is nothing more pernicious in education than this self-esteem crap and we need to get rid of that and start making our kids stronger by telling them the truth when they're messing up." Hitting rock bottom is one of those sound bites often used by some to give advice for recovery. It is a wrong advice. Even with drug addiction, David Sheff says, "Waiting for someone to hit rock bottom is a dangerous concept. Experts advise parents of it, but the reality is that studies show people who are coerced into treatment by way of their parents or even the legal system have an equal chance of doing well as those who ‘choose’ to be there." Hope presupposes a glimpse of success and can not emanate from unmitigated darkness.

Above copied from Solution Tree
Basic education is an appropriate place for second chances, even third or fourth ones. Skills required to overcome challenges in later life need to be developed in the elementary and high school years. Most of these skills are not acquired the first time they are taught. DuFour is correct in emphasizing that opportunities should be given to students to foster these skills. Giving a student a "zero" does not teach anything especially if all it does is to close doors of opportunity. The fact is some students do sink in college. And research shows that at this stage of education, interventions designed to help struggling students often do not work.

In a paper published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, researchers find that neither self-esteem bolstering nor boosting self-control and responsibility help students struggling in college.

Above copied from Forsyth et al.
As the above abstract suggests, such interventions actually correlate with even lower academic performance. But what is important to see in this work is that the correlation between a positive attitude, responsibility, and self control, and good academic performance is most probably a cause and effect relationship, but not in the direction we normally presume. The reason behind the correlation is that good academic performance often boosts one's self-esteem, sense of responsibility, and self control. And perhaps, only when this happens at least once in this direction that the reverse direction, self-esteem boosting academic performance work can occur. DuFour is correct in emphasizing that we give elementary and high school students ample opportunities to develop habits, skills and knowledge to overcome setbacks. This, of course, is possible only with second chances. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

What Makes Math Teachers Effective

Elementary pupils from Hong Kong score high in international standardized math exams. Hong Kong has placed second in the most recent TIMSS exam for grade 4 mathematics. It is therefore interesting to examine what teachers' characteristics correlate with student performance in schools in Hong Kong. Since this is a high performing region, one can just imagine that teachers in these schools mostly have high subject matter knowledge (SMK) as well as pedagogic content knowledge (PCK). Still, things are seldom homogeneous so it is possible to find variance within Hong Kong students and teachers in terms of mathematics performance.

Fung and coworkers have managed to do such as study and their findings are published in the International Journal of Education Research. No correlation is found between either a teacher's SMK or PCK and student performance in mathematics. It appears that knowing more mathematics may only be a prerequisite to teach mathematics effectively. In schools of high performing students, something additional seems to be required.

Fung and coworkers have found an additional teaching characteristic that actually correlates with learning outcomes for Hong Kong grade 4 pupils and teachers. They call this factor "pedagogic efficacy (PEf)". PEf is defined as "a teacher’s expectation that he or she will be able to bring about student learning". In this study, PEf is measured using a survey and sample questions are shown below:

Sample PEf questionsThinking about your present class please rate your ability to teach the following topics in mathematics at P4 level (circle the number that best corresponds to how you feel – leave the row blank if your class doesn’t work on this topic)

very poor
(I hate teaching  this - most pupils find this difficult and so do I)
not great
(I don’t look forward to this – there are always problems for some)
(I’m ambivalent – we just do it and no-one gets  that excited)
(I quite enjoy this – most pupils get it and like working in this)
(I love teaching this – pupils get it, have fun with it and so do I!)
place value /num. systems
addition / subtraction
multiplication / division
Mental arithmetic
PEf is about confidence, self-confidence. With sufficient subject matter and pedagogic content knowledge, a teacher can actually prophesy if his or her teaching will bring a positive outcome or not.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

How Students Evaluate Their Professors

At the end of the semester, students in universities are given the opportunity to evaluate their instructor. How students' evaluations correlate with a teacher's effectiveness is only expected to be weak. In fact, a study from Bocconi University suggests that students' evaluation of an instructor depends on "meteorological conditions". A teacher tends to receive poorer evaluations on either a cold or rainy day.

The following is the reported relationship between students' evaluations and teachers' effectiveness:

Above copied from Economics of Education Review
There is really no meaningful correlation. The question then is why do universities continue this exercise of soliciting evaluations from students. As an instructor, I think it is important for students to have a voice. And going beyond scores, some students actually write comments. I taught a small class this past semester. There were seven students and more than half actually wrote something in their evaluation:

A teacher-student relationship is personal. And I do want to hear from students. Students have their own perspective and indeed, such can not be easily reduced to scores. For this reason, written comments are much more meaningful.

As teachers, we also need to know our students. It is a two-way street, and with constant communication, we likewise will grow as teachers.

"When you focus on kung fu, when you concentrate... you stink.
But perhaps that is my fault. I cannot train you the way I have trained the Five.
I now see that the way to get through to you, is with this."
- Master Shifu, Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Above picture copied from Basement Rejects

Friday, January 6, 2017

The Principal and School Climate

"When you enter this school, you are scientists, you are explorers, you are important, you are loved, you are respected, you are a friend, you are the reason why we are here, love", - Mason Crest Staff. It is so much more than just a corsage of slogans. These words breathe a spirit of a genuine positive school climate in the elementary school where my children study. It is true that there are gaps that still need to be filled with regard to our knowledge of how to improve school climate but there is no doubt that what happens inside a school affects learning outcomes.

In a recent study published in the Review of Educational Research, Berkowitz and coworkers write:
Educational researchers and practitioners assert that supportive school and classroom climates can positively influence the academic outcomes of students, thus potentially reducing academic achievement gaps between students and schools of different socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. Nonetheless, scientific evidence establishing directional links and mechanisms between SES, school climate, and academic performance is inconclusive. This comprehensive review of studies dating back to the year 2000 examined whether a positive climate can successfully disrupt the associations between low SES and poor academic achievement. Positive climate was found to mitigate the negative contribution of weak SES background on academic achievement; however, most studies do not provide a basis for deducing a directional influence and causal relations. Additional research is encouraged to establish the nature of impact positive climate has on academic achievement and a multifaceted body of knowledge regarding the multilevel climate dimensions related to academic achievement.
What is clear is that there is a correlation between school climate and academic achievement. A positive climate is even seen to cancel the bad effects of poverty. What is unclear is how one improves school climate and how such improvement can lead to increased learning. School climate and academic performance are indeed both multifaceted and multilevel, thus, a simple relationship may not be possible. However, one can gauge a school's climate and then correlate this with various factors in school. The first factor that comes to mind is, of course, the school leader, the principal.

Margaret Whitaker wrote her doctoral dissertation on this topic. She found the following characteristics among principals in schools that have a positive climate:
  1. They take school climate as their responsibility.
  2. They are always visible during the day as opposed to spending most of their time doing paperwork in their office.
  3. They are personally concerned and knowledgeable of their teachers' lives.
  4. They communicate motivations and information regularly with their teachers.
  5. They use staff meetings for consensus building and purposedful discussions.
  6. They respect their teachers' strengths and teaching styles.
  7. They serve as role models for teachers and students.
  8. They work to keep the school clean, neat, attractive and student-oriented. 
All of the principals at Mason Crest are always visible. Brian Butler is usually in front of the school greeting children in school buses and cars as they make their way to school. The other day when it was raining, Sherry Shin was busy greeting children as they arrived, holding an umbrella to keep them dry as they walked into school. My daughter finds it very inviting whenever Diane Kerr is in front of the school to greet her. In fact, I have been fortunate enough to have spent a school day with the principals at Mason Crest. I have sat in some of their staff meetings and class observations. Reading the descriptions given by Whitaker in her dissertation therefore makes it seem that she is talking about these principals.

The reason why principals are central to establishing a positive climate in school is actually simple. They are indeed the examples. Teachers take their cue from principals. Students take their cue from their principals and teachers. How this affects learning outcomes should not be a mystery....

Thursday, January 5, 2017

DepEd Will Be Building Classrooms

For the past six years, the budget for building classrooms in the Philippines has been rising every year. Yet, classroom shortages still exist. The image of about sixty second grade students cramped inside a former toilet as they listen to their teacher Leonora Jusay remains, even with billions of pesos assigned to alleviate the overcrowding of schools in the country.

Above copied from Public Radio International
The amount of money supposedly assigned to building classrooms has continued to rise for the past six years:

From 2011 to this year, more than 300 billion pesos have been allocated for building classrooms. At a cost of 2 million pesos per classroom, this amounts to 150000 classrooms. With 40 students per classroom, this number of classrooms then translates to 6 million pupils. There were about half a million classrooms in the country in 2015.

With the seemingly endless budget allocation for classrooms, why do classroom shortages persist? This was the same question asked by Rep. Tinio back in 2015:

Above copied from ABS CBN News
And his own response to his question is: "...while the DepEd was given a big budget to eliminate classroom shortage in the country, the actual construction of these classrooms remains slow."

The budget for 2017 provides the biggest for classrooms:

Above copied from Yahoo News
The above news comes with a statement from current Deped secretary Briones "pledging to address the issue of delays in the construction of school buildings, citing the single design as one of the reasons".

Briones is probably wrong. One can figure out the real reason behind the delay in the construction of school buildings by looking at where classroom shortages are. Overcrowded classrooms are found in urban centers where there are really no available lots for new school buildings. Of course, there are other reasons since we continue to see dilapidated classrooms badly needing renovation. There is corruption and inefficiency and "the single design" reason is simply frivolous.