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Showing posts from November, 2013

Team, Partner and Subject Teaching

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In a previous post, "Science and Mathematics Education: What Is the Current Situation?" I mentioned the following: "I have a friend who grew up in Singapore and one major complaint I heard from this person regarding education in the United States is the general lack of subject teachers. Teachers in US schools are assigned to teach an assortment of subjects while in Singapore, apparently, there is a math teacher, a science teacher, a reading teacher even in primary grades." It is assumed that subject teachers are experts on the subject they are assigned to teach.

Subject matter experts, of course, are not necessarily more effective teachers especially in an elementary school. One can not pluck a chemistry professor from a PhD granting institution and expect that person to be a stellar teacher of science in a primary school. A practicing scientists often has difficulty in fact in relating their work with non scientists. There is subject expertise, but for basic educ…

Equity in Education

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The top performing nations in the world in education pride itself by providing quality education to all. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports, "The highest performing education systems across OECD countries combine quality with equity". Ironically, most countries look at education as a way to become better than the rest. Education is seen as a tool to get ahead in society. This objective falls so far away from society's main goal of preparing its youngest members. Inequity leads to a school's failure and society pays heavily for this grave mistake in the future. Common sense dictates that schools with greater needs require more support and attention. Instead, the most effective teachers are attracted to schools with better resources and well prepared students. Facilities are usually updated in elite schools attended by children of the privileged class. Special programs are even provided for children who demonstrate high academic a…

Rebuilding Schools After Yolanda

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After rescue and relief, rebuilding comes next. Rebuilding must attempt to mitigate the effects of a typhoon. Otherwise, communities will face the same tragedy when the next typhoon hits. It is also important that the extra measures take into account what these communities really need. The Philippines, with all of its islands, has a significant fraction of its people living in coastal communities. Fishing is a major part of livelihood as well as source of food. It is foolish, for example, to impose "no-build" zones on coast lines. We need to listen to one of the leaders of fishermen in the Philippines, Salvador France:
France said about 10 million Filipinos or roughly 10 percent of the country’s population live in coastal areas, the Philippines being an archipelago of 7,101 islands and islets. Declaring coastlines as no-build zones is “stupid,” France said. (Business Mirror, 27 November 2013) One may suggest then to build homes that can resist both strong winds and storm surg…

Gaming Special Education

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Seeing schools accommodating children with special needs or learning disabilities is indeed comforting. The point is to ensure that these children likewise receive the support they need in order to become positive contributors to society. The same standards of career- or college-readiness is therefore applied to special education. In the US, states provide additional support in terms of staff and resources to schools based on the number of special education students enrolled. These include students with learning disabilities as well as English language learners. Having schools actively identifying students with needs is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a good sign that schools are taking disability seriously. Unfortunately, there is a flip side. There are standardized exams which gauge learning outcomes. One of these is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). States can exclude special education students from this exam. The current policy of the NAEP (issued in 2010) st…

From Zero to Eight

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First came "Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters". This report of the Annie E. Casey Foundation made the case of how important reading is for learning. Children learn to read before the age of eight (preschool through third grade) while children read to learn after that. In a new report, "The First Eight Years", the Annie E. Casey Foundation highlights the status of third grade students in the United States. It is not pretty.

The results on cognitive knowledge and skills, and physical well-being. With only 36% scoring respectably in science. math and reading, and only 56% in "excellent" or "very good" health, it is highly likely that there is significant overlap between these groups. Children in poor health are likely to be among those not having the cognitive skills and knowledge required at age 8. Looking at income, it is apparent that children from poor families are much more likely to be behind in all areas.

It should…

Diversity in Preschool and Elementary Years

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Though we were poor, my parents managed to send me to a private elementary school. In fact, all throughout my education in the Philippines, I would find myself as among the poorest kids in school. Obviously, school for me was so different from home. I brought to school my experiences and perspectives from home but I also saw what other children had. These classmates were growing up in an environment different from the one I had. Socio-economic status shapes the thinking of a child. With a range of experiences, children from different backgrounds enter school with different mindsets, prejudices, strengths and weaknesses. For this reason, it is foolish to segregate children according to socio-economic class during the early years of learning. Children can learn from each other. More importantly, teachers who teach not only rich children but also poor children, and vice versa, are given the proper environment and opportunity to develop learner-centered teaching skills. In this respect, …

Sometimes, Things Are Really Simple But We Insist on Making Them Complicated

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Teaching quantum mechanics to students who have not seen the subject before can be extremely challenging. Take, for example, one of its postulates (A postulate is a statement that is assumed true without proof.):
This is the time-dependent Schrödinger equation, which describes how a system evolves in time when acted upon by a force or energy. For a situation like this, I try to remind my students of the time they were in kindergarten and the teacher taught them that 1 + 1 = 2. This is no different. Being able to accept nature the way it is can be very difficult especially when our mind has been conditioned to rationalize all the time. There are building blocks which we must assume as starting material. How we connect or assemble these blocks to create something is indeed a skill, but we must not confuse skills with fundamentals. 

In General Chemistry, there are likewise fundamental concepts. An example is the Law of Definite Proportions: "A chemical compound always contains exactl…

When and Where Students Acquire Skills

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Nowadays, there is an obvious increased emphasis among education reformers on students acquiring skills. There is that favorite phrase "21st Century Skills". A committee from the United States National Academies concluded that these skills can be divided into three categories: cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Interpersonal skills include teamwork and communication while intrapersonal skills are exemplified by resilience and conscientiousness. Among these skills, conscientiousness has been shown to be most strongly correlated with positive life outcomes: fruitful employment, educational attainment, good health, longer life expectancy, and low criminal behavior. The following figure compiled by Heckman and Kautz in their recently released working paper, "Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition", shows that in fact only conscientiousness appears to correlate with job performance in a statistically significant manne…

Not How, But Why?

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It was in my senior year that I got introduced to the Greek word telos, which means purpose or goal. It sounded Greek and perhaps complicated especially in a philosophy class, but I think it is really no different from how a child thinks. Asking why is really common among children. Focusing on the goal often hinders an appreciation and understanding of what is in fact occurring. It is in a way related to an intrinsic desire to reach the finish line without actually going through the race. It is the inherent distaste for delayed gratification. As a result, a procedure involving numerous steps or progress that occurs in very small increments become very difficult to accept and learn.

The obsession with why and not how prompts people to cling on finding a reason before knowing and understanding what just occurred. People are, for instance, quite quick to blame. Here are examples:





The desire to arrive at a purpose-based explanation on why something happens is extremely strong. This desire…

Where Have All the Good Teachers Gone?

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This is not a bashing of those who are currently in the teaching profession. It is simply a rehash of what I heard from some people during the past week regarding teachers in the United States. It was "Gender Summit" after all in Washington, DC. The gender summit is a conference that discusses how both research and innovation are improved through inclusion of gender. It is both a celebration as well as a discussion of remaining challenges with regard to the role of women in science, technology and policy.

Throughout my basic education years, clearly more than ninety-percent of the teachers I had were female. The situation in the United States is similar. The National Center for Education Statistics in the US reports the following in 2008:
Among full-time and part-time public school teachers in 2007–08, some 76 percent of public school teachers were female, 44 percent were under age 40, and 52 percent had a master’s or higher degree. Compared with public school teachers, a low…

National Assessment of Educational Progress 2013

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The results are out. This is the report card for basic education in the United States. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), administered every two years, provides a glimpse of how students in America perform in math and reading. This year 2013 shows incremental improvement in both areas. The scores are a bit better than those in 2011. Still, less than half are deemed proficient. More importantly, the gaps have not been reduced. Highlighting this is the following figure which shows that only one state (Maine) has reduced the gap between the scores of white and black Americans:


One has to go back 10 years to see yellow/orange in the map above.


Gaps narrowed in five states during the period 2003-2005. The report includes scores as far back as 1992. Using the gaps then, the following states have shown improvement:

There are 16 states here that have narrowed the gap. This shows that states have done a better job during the decade 1992-2002 than the most recent one in red…

Parallels between Disasters and Basic Education

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For the Philippines, there are indeed similarities between how the country is affected by typhoons and the current predicament of its basic education system. Both have been perennially plaguing the country and both seem to be insurmountable challenges. The parallels go even further than this. Take the following as an example:

Here is an article from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalismin 2006:


And here is a recent column from the Philippine Star:


At least, the one from basic education is only about fudging pupil to classroom ratios. With the disaster, the number of human lives lost is being manipulated.

There are other features disasters and schools share in common. One is trying to get credit for building schools and providing relief aid. In front of a school building we may find, for example, the name of a Philippine politician (the specific name of the congressman is removed here for the sake of fairness since this practice is really widespread in the Philippines) tak…

The Learning Network: "Teaching About the Typhoon in the Philippines"

The New York Times has a series in education called The Learning Network. Its mission is to provide materials for teaching and learning that are based or derived from the content of the newspaper. This past week, the Learning Network shined a spotlight on the recent super typhoon that devastated the islands of central Philippines: "Teaching About the Typhoon in the Philippines". The lesson starts with a powerful video:


This video comes with the following warning: "Please preview this Times video as there are many graphic images." The video is then followed by suggestions for lesson plans. Starting with the basics, a class can begin exploring the news to find out more about what happened. Students can also get acquainted with Tacloban City, what it was before the typhoon struck. Some of the contents in the New York Times that can be used to dive deeper into this catastrophic event is an article "Messages to and from Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan".  The recen…

A Lesson We All Need to Read and Learn

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Almost a year ago, a category 5 typhoon packing sustained winds at 175 mph hit the southern island of the Philippines. The typhoon internationally known as Bopha was locally called "Pablo". While the devastation from the recent super typhoon Yolanda was attributed to storm surge, Pablo destroyed homes in Mindanao with rainfall that triggered landslides. Unlike Yolanda, Pablo did not receive ample media coverage. Patrick Fuller of CNN in "Two months on, Typhoon Bopha's victims still homeless" wrote: ...Bopha didn't get much traction in the international media. Competing against Syria for the headlines, the story appeared to drop off TV screens within days.With scant media coverage, the job of NGO fundraisers was made even more difficult. Barely any British NGOs launched public appeals in the full knowledge that levels of public sympathy just weren't high enough. But if a category 5 super typhoon -- the largest on the scale -- does not warrant donor atten…