"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, March 30, 2014

When We Miss the Point

It is Lent and every Sunday is packed with very profound readings. Today's gospel reading is about a blind man whose eyes were opened. The story unfortunately turns into something absurd. Not a single soul was happy for the fact that someone had gained sight after living a life in darkness. Instead, everyone was focused on who was right and who was wrong.

Missing the point often happens when deference to the correct authority is ignored. Frequently, doubts have already been planted in someone's mind so the one's task is simply to discredit. With this agenda, we really cannot see even if we look. This also happens in education when we do not respect the teachers, the individuals with whom we have entrusted our children. It is necessary that we see teachers as the educators of our children. Otherwise, we will become completely blind.

There was a parent's rant against the Common Core that went viral on Facebook this week:

The above homework was asking the student to write a letter to Jack. Jack was apparently trying to solve the arithmetic problem, 427 - 316 = ?, using the number line. On top of the homework is Jack's drawing of the number line:

I had to clean up the previous picture so that the question is clearer. Jack in the above picture was basically subtracting only 306 from 427. This was the reason why Jack arrived at the answer of 121. This was basically the homework question. It was plainly asking us to review what Jack did. Jack knew decimal places. The 3 in 316 is three hundreds and the 6 is plain 6 ones. What Jack forgot was the 1 in the middle of 316, which was in the tens' place. This homework had nothing to do with teaching students a specific way of subtracting two numbers. This homework was meant to be an activity for a child to review another person's work. Yet, the father who posted the rant became an instant hit on social media.

Dear Jack,
Don’t feel bad. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering, which included extensive study in differential equations and other higher math applications. Even I cannot explain the Common Core mathematics approach, nor get the answer correct. In the real world, simplification is valued over complication.
427 – 316: 111
The answer is solved in under 5 seconds – 111. The process used is ridiculous and would result in termination if used.
Frustrated Parent

Someone who has studied differential equations and other higher math applications should have developed reading comprehension as well. This parent totally missed the point of this homework. It was not trying to force a specific method of subtraction. It was an opportunity for a student to review someone else's work. Yet, not only did this dad miss the important point, but so did the thousands who have liked and shared the above misguided rant.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Philippines' DepEd Seriously Lacks Innovation

Facing limitations breeds opportunities for transformative innovations. Unfortunately, "transformative innovations" as well as "21st century learning" have been grossly misused by education reformers and policy makers to pretend that they are actually doing something. Science instruction is challenging because of the costs associated with its practical or laboratory component. With limited funds, equipping schools for science laboratory classes can be totally precluded. However, even with relatively larger budgets, laboratories in schools in the United States are quite different from those several decades ago. Laboratories are now designed with both safety and impact on environment in mind. In the Philippines, with more than 600 million pesos, DepEd plans to equip 2966 high schools to support biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, and mathematics. Using the current exchange rate of 44.84 Philippines pesos per US dollar, this budget translates to about US$4849 per school. It is not a lot but this makes it even more imperative to be innovative. Yet, the list of supplies DepEd plans to provide leaves so much to be desired.
To view a complete list download from DepEd Malaybalay Division
Some of the equipment described in this memo comes from the National Science Teaching Instrumentation Center which boasts of the following slogan on its webpage, "The Science of Today Is the Technology of Tomorrow". The following image is copied from its website:

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Exam Questions: Those That Are Pure

Writing questions in an exam is not an easy task. Each question needs to be thoughtfully considered to see whether it is in fact assessing the right thing. When I was looking at practice questions for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) back in 1987, I did not particularly like a question in the analytical section. It was a series of questions that followed a paragraph introducing and explaining the rules of a baseball game in the United States. Unlike basketball, a game I was more familiar with in the Philippines, substitution in a baseball game is permanent. The questions in the exam exploited this difference highlighting the rules regarding "pinch-hitting", "pinch-running", and "relief pitching". I thought this question was unfair. It was not only assessing one's analytical reasoning skills. Anyone who was familiar with the game clearly had a leg up. Anyone who grew up with America's favorite pastime sport definitely had an advantage.

It is therefore not surprising to see that scores in standardized exams are correlated with factors other than learning (poverty, race, gender) if the background or experiences of a child factor in the exam. There are "pure" questions, those that are assessing something very specific. Unfortunately, as problems become more complex, it becomes difficult to write questions that are independent of a student's background. The following is perhaps one of the very few examples of "pure" questions in math:

There are 100 in this list. These are not all unique. Some are in fact repeated. To some, this list is "drill and kill", an excessive repetition of simple and isolated skills. There is no "real world" connection. In a previous post, "National Achievement Test - Should We Abolish Standardized Testing?", a paper by W. James Popham is highlighted. In Popham's article, there is one sample math question deemed as "pure":

Above copied from W. James Popham, "Why Standardized Tests Don't Measure Educational Quality".

Monday, March 24, 2014

National Achievement Test - Should We Abolish Standardized Testing?

Standardized tests are now favorite targets of complaints here in the United States as well as in the Philippines. In the United States, the title of an article from the blog Curmudgucation says it all, "Standardized Testing Sucks".

In the Philippines, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers has now called for abolition of the country's standardized exam, the National Achievement Test (NAT):

A coalition of private school educators, the Federation of Associations of Private Schools and Administrators (FAPSA), has joined the call to end NAT:

Friday, March 21, 2014

Rejection Is An Acceptable Choice But Not Misinformation

Evidence is usually provided to support an assertion. The burden of proof always lies on whomever is making a claim. Nowadays, policy makers are quick to use the "evidence-based" phrase to describe their proposals. "Evidence-based" is basically utilized to provide a scientific flavor often associated with having proof. Science, unlike mathematics, is not about proofs. Science primarily aims to arrive at a "well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of knowledge that has been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment." That well-substantiated explanation is called a theory. The main job of a scientists is not so much about forming an opinion or a guess - it is more about carefully collecting data and making sense of what is observed.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recently issued a report entitled "What We Know: The Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change":

The AAAS Climate Change Panel is co-chaired by Nobel Laureate Mario Molina, Harvard's Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography and former AAAS president James McCarthy, and Colorado State's University Distinguished Professor Diana Wall. The report has the following key messages:
1.  Climate scientists agree: climate change is happening here and now. Based on well-established evidence, about 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening. 
2.  We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts. Earth’s climate is on a path to warm beyond the range of what has been experienced over the past millions of years.
3. The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do. Waiting to take action will inevitably increase costs, escalate risk, and foreclose options to address the risk.
...As scientists, it is not our role to tell people what they should do or must believe about the rising threat of climate change. But we consider it to be our responsibility as professionals to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know: human-caused climate change is happening, we face risks of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes, and responding now will lower the risk and cost of taking action. 
The above paragraph expresses something of great importance. It is not an aim of science to change people's beliefs. Scientists provide data to inform. Scientists draw theories to explain. One can disagree with scientists. Scientists are supposedly not here to argue policies. However, scientists can not sit idle when their science is being misunderstood.

Days before the AAAS report was made public, the following was the headline from Wyoming's Star-Tribune:

It is alright to disagree with scientists. However, it is wrong to misrepresent what scientists are saying.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

STEM Situation

With about 20 million pupils in public schools, to achieve a 30:1 pupil to teacher ratio (which is still quite high), about 670,000 teachers are needed. Depending on who is counting, shortages in teachers in Philippines public schools range from zero (this is from LIARS) to more than 100,000. The numbers really depend on whether one includes volunteers as well as those who are counting those who teach two classes as two teachers. The shortage in teachers is quite different from shortages in classrooms and textbooks. Classrooms can be built with enough construction materials, a lot, and labor. Textbooks can be written and published, requiring only a team of authors, editors, reviewers and publishers. Filling teachers' shortages, however, require so much more. The teaching profession requires individuals who are both motivated and capable.

With the introduction of K+12 and a spiral curriculum in both science and mathematics, the need for teachers in these fields has increases substantially. This does not even include the fact that science and mathematics are now seen as very important fields in addressing the challenges of the 21st century. Take the United States for example. The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology noted in 2010 that the US needs 25,000 teachers in K-12 Science and Mathematics per year. For the US to remain competitive, ten thousand of these teachers must be of high quality. The next step then after seeing the demand is to examine the supply. Can US schools deliver what is needed?

To answer this question, ACT, an independent, nonprofit organization that provides assessment, research, information, and program management services in the broad areas of education and workforce development, published the following report:

To read this report, visit ACT-STEM Educator Pipeline
The ACT test is one of the standardized exam taken by high school students. About half of those who aspire to go to college take this exam. The other half take the SAT test. Thus, in the ACT report above, the required ten thousand high quality STEM teachers has been reduced to 4,000. First, 2,000 of these teachers are assumed to come from non-traditional routes (An example is a chemist professor like me deciding to teach in high school). Of the 8,000, half would have taken SAT while the other half have taken ACT. Thus, the target number if 4,000, if only ACT test takers are considered. Whether there is ample supply or not to meet this demand, the answer is as follows:

The numbers above clearly show that if high quality STEM teachers can only come from those who are both qualified and interested, the supply will end up short. Only 2502 will be met, leaving 37% of the demand unmet. The ACT report concludes:

This is the situation in the United States. In the Philippines, it is useful to remind us of the following data:

The above shows the current situation for math and science education in the Philippines. Below is a closer look at the current situation of teacher education:

Combine the above pieces of information and one can easily arrive at the conclusion that the situation of STEM education in elementary and high schools in the Philippines looks really bleak. People can miraculously make shortages in classrooms and textbooks disappear. But when a politician, policy maker, cabinet secretary makes the proclamation that teachers' shortages are things of the past, you know quite well that nothing could be further from the truth.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Teacher Education in the Philippines

There are more than 2,000 higher education institutions that offer teacher education in the Philippines. Statistics from the Commission on Higher Education shows that in a span of eight years (2001-2008), about 3 million have enrolled in these programs. Of the 3 million, only half a million (about 17%) completed a degree. The Philippines requires aspiring teachers to pass an examination. This year, 2014, the passing rates for the licensure exam are 29% (only 11,120 passed out of 38,377 takers) in elementary and 28% (only 12,033 passed out of 42,358 takers). 29 percent of 17 percent is about 5. This means that only 5 out of 100 students enrolled in a teacher education program in the Philippines becomes qualified to teach. Did you know that you are ten times more likely to draw a single pair in a poker game?

It is no wonder then that a group of education reform advocates in the Philippines is urging the government to close down non-performing education schools. The Philippine Business for Education has compiled data on education schools to expose which schools are not performing well. A complete list can be downloaded from this site. The overall picture is not pretty. More than half of the schools are failing. The figure below (which is a bit rosier since it only includes data from years during which the passing rates were more than 50%) shows how many of these schools are not serving their students:

Above figure copied from PBEd LET Schools Performance Briefer

The public should not wait for the government. The above information is available. Read it. It is not worth enrolling in the schools from which more than eighty percent of the students fail the licensure examination. It is simply a waste of money, time and effort.

Friday, March 14, 2014

What Should We Teach in Kindergarten?

The Philippines added a compulsory kindergarten year in its basic education. This is a step in the right direction as studies have clearly shown that schooling before the elementary years are beneficial not just for acquiring social skills but also academically. Unfortunately, simply adding a year before grade school is not enough. Quality matters. Perhaps, this is now obvious. But even with quality in preschool and kindergarten, all of these efforts can still go to waste. We can certainly teach kids how to read and recite the alphabet or count from one to ten in kindergarten. But if first grade tries to do the same, then there is really no progress. A forthcoming article in the American Educational Research Journal shows that repeating basic content coverage in the early years of schooling provides no benefit:

  • Amy Claessens
  • Mimi Engel
  • and F. Chris Curran
Academic Content, Student Learning, and the Persistence of Preschool EffectsAmerican Educational Research Journal0002831213513634first published on November 25, 2013 as doi:10.3102/0002831213513634
To understand better the above research article, it is useful to take note of what the authors consider as basic and advanced contents:
"Given that all children benefit from more exposure to advanced content, it is important to consider what “advanced” means for kindergarten students. In mathematics, the items in our measure of advanced content cover topics such as addition and subtraction, place value, and ordinality. In reading, students benefit from phonics instruction, reading aloud or silently, and working on reading comprehension. In contrast, basic content in mathematics includes counting out loud, identifying relative quantity, and sorting into subgroups. Basic content in reading includes alphabet recognition, writing the letters of the alphabet, and writing one’s own name."
Children do step up to challenges and stagnation does not equal progress. Given the right circumstances, children can learn even topics that are conventionally regarded as far too complex. Take the theory of natural selection as an example. It is a difficult concept to grasp even for adults. But the difficulty may just be due to the fact that it took a long time before this theory was taught that students had already developed wrong notions about evolution. Thus, teaching this topic in high school requires not only introducing something new, but also correcting misconceptions. And intervention is usually much more difficult, if not impossible. Researchers at Boston University and the University of Toronto have recently shown that "YOUNG CHILDREN CAN BE TAUGHT BASIC NATURAL SELECTION":

Daniel Willingham, who is now blogging for RealClearEducation describes the above research in simpler terms:
Researchers tested children aged 5 through 8. Kids heard a story about pilosas, fictional animals whose survival was threatened when their food source, insects, started to live below ground in deep, narrow tunnels. Pilosas have trunks which might be wide or narrow. The story went on to explain that in successive generations, trunks became less variable, as pilosas with narrow trunks survived and had young, whereas pilosas with wide trunks could not get enough to eat and did not reproduce.
Researchers tested comprehension of the story and children’s ability to generalize the biological principle to a new case. They were tested immediately and after three months. Each test included ten questions in all (five open, five closed) which probed understanding of different aspects of natural selection such as differential survival, differential reproduction, and the passing on of traits between generations.
7 and 8 year-old children showed good comprehension of the story, with nearly half showing an understanding of the natural selection in one generation and 91% showing at least a partial understanding. Remarkably, 3 months later, this knowledge transferred more or less intact to a story about a new species.
The results are displayed in the following graph (copied from Kelemen D. et al. Psychological Science 2014;0956797613516009):

Results from Experiment 1: percentages of (a) younger and (b) older children classified into the five levels of natural-selection understanding as a function of assessment. Because of rounding, percentages do not always add up to 100. Level 0 = no isolated facts; Level 1 = isolated facts but no natural-selection understanding; Level 2 = foundation for natural-selection understanding; Level 3 = natural-selection understanding in one generation; Level 4 = natural-selection understanding for multiple generations.
The day 2 testing shown above was actually performed three months after the original lesson, demonstrating very good retention and transferability.

Improving education really involves different levels. There is the number of years and instructional time. Another level is the curriculum, what should be taught during these times or years. In the end, what may really matter is how are things taught. The above illustrates that a complex theory such as natural selection is within grasp of young children. It simply has to be taught properly. And the above demonstrates that young children can be provided the complete story. A piecemeal approach which underestimates a child's ability to learn simply allows for developing misconceptions. A classroom where science is taught is not the only place where a child gets introduced to scientific theories. Outside the classroom is an infinite source of biases and misunderstanding.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Multitasking: Nonproductive Yet Lingering Myth

Solving two problems with one action is hitting two birds with one stone. This is certainly productive but this is different from performing two acts at the same time. "No man could serve two masters" is a favorite verse from the Scriptures. No one would be happy to see his or her surgeon texting while performing a surgery. No one should be texting while driving. Yet, we see plenty of examples out there. The following diagram shows why texting and driving severely lengthens the reaction time of a driver:

Above figure copied from Driving MBA
Texting is in fact worse than being intoxicated. The unexplainable part is that people already know this. The following is a graph from a recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied:

Above figure copied from Finley, J. R., Benjamin, A. S., & McCarley, J. S. (2014, February 3). Metacognition of Multitasking: How Well Do We Predict the Costs of Divided Attention?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xap0000010
The above experiment involves two tasks simultaneously performed by a participant: (1) "keeping a mouse cursor within a small target that moved erratically around a circular track" and (2) "performing an auditory task (listening to a series of numbers and reacting when a given number is repeated). Compared to simply keeping the mouse cursor without doing the additional task of listening, the dual task results in a 6% drop in performance across the participants. What is worth noting from the above figure is that the participants are very much aware of the price of multitasking. In fact, the participants anticipate a greater drop in performance when trying to do two tasks at the same time. So, why do we keep trying to multitask?

When I look at a classroom and I see a teacher who is so worried about what is going at home, I can imagine what this actually does to learning inside a classroom. If a society is unable to support a teacher's need to support his or her family, what kind of performance are we to expect inside a classroom. When a teacher does other activities totally separate from teaching in order to augment one's income to support a family, should we really expect 100 percent? It does not make sense to expect teachers to be capable of multitasking when no one really is. I guess the answer is simple - We do not really care.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Performance-Based Bonus Is Now Cheating-Based Bonus (Public School Education in the Philippines)

Burgess and Ratto in "The Role of Incentives in the Public Sector: Issues and Evidence" enumerated three reasons provided by teachers' unions in the United Kingdom against Performance-Based Pay for public school teachers:

  • Teaching is multidimensional and aimed at much wider outcomes than exam results or test scores. 
  • Teaching involves team-based co-operation that is inconsistent with an individual Performance Related Pay scheme. 
  • Teachers are professionals and do not require financial incentives to induce effort. 

William Firestone of Rutgers University has reviewed past and current research in "Teacher Evaluation Policy and Conflicting Theories of Motivation" to determine how such incentives work in the United States. Firestone arrived at the following conclusion:

The benefits from a bonus system that rewards teachers based on students' scores on exams are indeed lacking. Whether one agrees or not with such system, it is clear that money can lead to unintended consequences. People can change their behavior when focused on monetary awards. It can lead to people overemphasizing the tasks that influence directly the measurements that decide who gets the bonus, creating a dysfunctional school environment. And in the Philippines, similar to some school districts in the United States where students' exam scores have been linked to teachers' pay, cheating is occurring:

A news network in the Philippines reports on cheating in the National Achievement Test
The results are out there with regard to how performance-based-pay schemes influence learning. It does not. The news is here. There is cheating, yet policy makers seem totally deaf and blind. The message from the public school teachers is crystal clear: Trash the performance-based-pay system of the Aquino administration.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing"

A little learning is a dangerous thing 
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring 
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, 
And drinking largely sobers us again.
-Alexander Pope in An Essay on Criticism

"Little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Bits of information are like pieces of a giant puzzle. Each piece provides a glimpse of the entire picture. Making the correct connections is essential but missing pieces can frustrate the entire process. Having bits of knowledge without the ability to relate and unify can indeed be a product of rote learning. However, pretending to have the critical thinking with only a fraction of the information required is equally precarious. In fact, it may not be possible to develop such skills without the mind absorbing the information first. Daniel Willingham writes, "'Learning to learn' is nebulous because it's domain-specific, and it's domain-specific because the ability to learn new things depends on what you already know."

The mind tries to make sense, but it cannot make sense if not provided with enough information. It is not easy to distill nature into one overarching sound bite. Actually, it is impossible. Yet, the human mind greatly craves for that shortcut. "The correct answer is usually simple" is a favorite. Thus, the human mind can collect and sort information, and then devise schemes or solutions that apply to specific situations. It is in this realm that experience does matter. As one grows in experience, exceptions are discovered and in each and every step, one's approach is examined, and the entire strategy is refined.

The intimate link between how one learns and what one knows is usually the challenge of any expert who is trying to teach. This is almost the proverbial problem of which comes first, knowledge or skills. Skills and knowledge are inseparable. This fact applies to any discipline. It applies to chemistry. In the General Chemistry class that I teach, one of the topics perceived as most difficult is acid-base equilibrium. Calculating the pH of an aqueous solution could be tricky. There is the weak acid solution, there is the buffer, there is the equivalence point, and then there is the amphiprotic species. Each one seems to command a different approach, a different shortcut, a different equation. The equations turn out different in each case, but to many students the fact that each one begins with a deep understanding of what equilibrium entails is often the most elusive to grasp. To a student, each situation seems special. Students then begin to build exclusive problem-strategy relationships. If the problem looks like this, then one should answer it this way, if it looks the other way, another approach is required, not realizing that both approaches are developed from the same principles.

One specific example, recently examined by researchers, is how difficult it is for students to appreciate structure-function relationships in chemistry, a fundamental concept in the discipline. The work published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching has the following abstract:

The major findings of the study are summarized as follows:

One can memorize facts. One can learn strategies. But it truly takes time to learn a discipline. It is challenging to do this all the time within an hour lecture, but it seems important for students to see how experts do think. Constructing a coherent framework requires a lot of support from the instructor. The flow of topics as well as examples seen by students should be designed in a manner that allows for students not to simply absorb bits and pieces of information, but also make connections.

This brings me back to a figure from a paper in EducationNext years ago authored by Guido Schwerdt and Amelie C. Wuppermann, "Sage on the Stage: Is Lecturing Really All That Bad?":

Some can indeed learn on their own. Unfortunately, this is more of an exception than a rule. "Googling" works only through learned eyes. Learning requires a guide. Perhaps, "the sage on stage" does provide the scaffold necessary for students to connect what they are learning. Just perhaps....

Monday, March 3, 2014

"Buwisit" in Philippine Education

The website "Tagalog Lang" traces the Tagalog word "buwisit" to the Fukien Chinese phrase "bo ui sit", which means no clothes or food. Food and clothing are among the basic needs of a human. Thus, a word associated with a lack of these necessities is as empty as a promise made by a politician in the Philippines. It is as empty as the reforms in education currently being forced upon schools in the country. It is just appropriate that Pinoy Weekly's Pher Pasion uses the word for the title of a recent article:

The above discusses the shift in the school calendar in most of the campuses of the University of the Philippines. The shift is in preparation for the coming integration among members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). As described in a previous article on this blog, "When Should the School Year Begin and End", changing the school calendar year is not necessary. On top of just wasting time and causing aggravation, the shift may even harm students because most facilities are not equipped with air conditioning which is badly needed during the hot dry and summer months in the Philippines. Pher Pasion therefore uses the word "buwisit" appropriately and the following protester simply highlights the emptiness in the directions being laid out by education reformers/leaders in the Philippines:

Simbolo ng pagtutol ng mga mag-aaral at propesor sa calendar shift. Pher Pasion - 
The above represents the objection of students and professors to the calendar shift. The calendar shift after reducing to its very essence does not really hold any substance or value. Here are some of Pasion's arguments. Similar to K+12, copying other countries is provided as one justification. Unfortunately, the countries where universities may work or partner with the Philippines like Japan, Korea and Australia do not have the calendar year targeted by the current shift in the Philippines. Most importantly, there are so many other issues that require our attention. The calendar year is as high of a priority as writing standards or a curriculum. These are simply not the factors that define quality in education. People choose to discuss these items because these are a lot easier to comprehend and digest. And here I am thinking that I am the one who is "purely theoretical". The reason why education in the Philippines is facing serious challenges is not in the "drawing plan". It is fully explained by what is happening on the ground. "Neither clothes nor food" - that is all education policy makers in the Philippines have to offer, simply "Kabuwisitan".