"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

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Contests and Learning

A child growing up could be exposed quite early to competition. There are contests and pageants. In these activities, it is clear that comparisons between children are made. A child therefore inherently develops an objective, not to be seen as a loser, but as a winner. But contests are actually teaching a child one other thing. We may not be aware of it, but saying to a child, "You are smart", may in fact be no different from saying, "You are stupid". Both assume that academic achievement comes from an intrinsic talent or lack thereof. This obviously goes against what learning is all about.

At Mason Crest Elementary School in Annandale, where my children are enrolled, the specific mission is "to ensure high levels of learning for all." This mission becomes more obvious with the fact that the teachers in the school generally subscribe to a "mastery" achievement goal as opposed to a "performance" achievement goal. These two goals are usually regarded as two contrasting motivations for learning. The difference between the two are explained for example by Meece, Anderman and Anderman:
A mastery goal orientation is defined in terms of a focus on developing one's abilities, mastering a new skill, trying to accomplish something challenging, and trying to understand learning materials. Success is evaluated in terms of self-improvement, and students derive satisfaction from the inherent qualities of the task, such as its interest and challenge. By contrast, a performance goal orientation represents a focus on demonstrating high ability relative to others, striving to be better than others, and using social comparison standards to make judgments of ability and performance. A sense of accomplishment is derived from doing better than others and surpassing normative performance standards.
The following provide specific examples to help us understand the difference between the two approaches:
Sample items to assess classroom goal structuresPatterns of Adaptive Learning Survey*
Mastery goal structure
     My teacher thinks mistakes are okay as long as we are learning.
     My teacher wants us to understand our work, not just memorize it.
     My teacher really wants us to enjoy learning new things.
     My teacher recognizes us for trying hard.
     My teacher gives us time to really explore and understand new ideas.

Performance goal structure
     My teacher points out those students who get good grades as an example to all of us.
     My teacher lets us know who gets the highest scores on a test.
     My teacher makes it obvious when certain students are not doing well on their work.
     My teacher tells us how we compare with other students.
     Only a few students do really well in my class.
     My teacher calls on smart students more than on other students.

*From Anderman & Midgley (2002), Midgley et al. (1997).
The two goals do appear dichotomous. In reality, we may actually be subscribing to a combination of both - the real difference lies mainly on what we heavily emphasize.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Why Is Adequate Sleep Important?

While I was growing up, there was one rule that could not be broken at home. That was bedtime. Even when my parents were working late, my grandmother who would be visiting from Paete, Laguna and babysitting us, would make sure that I was in bed at the right time. There were no excuses, even celebrating New Year's Eve or having guests in the house would not be acceptable. My parents knew without being aware of medical and educational research that sleep was very important. My father easily associated the mood and functioning of a child with the amount of sleep a child got during the previous night. I am indeed very fortunate that my parents had the wisdom of recognizing that sleep deprivation might lead to all sorts of problems like drug abuse, compromised physical health, and poor academic performance.

For children and adolescents, sleep is so much more than just resting. It may have been a superstitious belief on my mother's part that using a book as a pillow can help me learn things since information can not really diffuse through my scalp but during sleep. Nonetheless, the brain of a child is really at work. It is the time of the day when the brain is preparing itself. It is during sleep that the brain forms new pathways to help one learn and remember information. It is no surprise then that children and adolescents require more sleep as their brains are still rapidly developing. Here is a screen capture of page from the United States National Institutes of Health:

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Paete, Laguna: Festivities and Education

Social well-being is part of growing up. It is, of course, part of basic education. In an ideal situation, extra-curricular activities can help foster friendships as well as a sense of belonging to one's school. Both can increase a student's engagement in school thereby supporting learning inside the classroom. As a child grows up, interests are formed and explored. Arts, clubs, advocacy groups offer avenues for the young to learn how to express themselves, find common interests, and learn how to become active participants in society.

Paete, Laguna, a small town in the Philippines has always been proud of its culture and arts. To celebrate its culture the town has been holding a week-long festival called Paet-Taka: (The photos shown here are copied from the Facebook page of Paete Taka Festival.)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Why Is Mother Tongue Education Important?

Among immigrants in the United States, several studies have shown that children who have proficiency in both English and their mother tongue tend to be more successful in school compared to their ethnic peers. (See, for example, Social Capital and the Adaptation of the Second Generation: The Case of Vietnamese Youth in New Orleans. Min Zhou and Carl L. Bankston III. International Migration Review, Vol. 28, No. 4, Special Issue: The New Second Generation (Winter, 1994), pp. 821-845) This, perhaps, can be attributed in part to closer family ties and parental cultural maintenance that emphasizes beliefs and practices that are socially constructive. These two strongly correlate with a child's retention of his or her parents' native tongue since this language is expected to be the major means of communication between immigrants and their children.

Mother tongue education, however, goes far beyond just benefiting society. It is about preserving one's ethnic identity and culture. It is true that choosing one language for all can be a lot more efficient, but one must also be concerned with the loss of diversity. The fact that the world has so many languages is a precious heritage, but this treasure only remains if there are people who could still read, speak and write in these languages. Some advocates of mother tongue education even suggests that basic education in the mother tongue first would facilitate cognitive development faster in young children. Thus, there are proponents that now insist that all of basic education in the early years must be given in the mother tongue of a child. In a country like the Philippines, where there are so many languages, such is daunting task. In a previous post on this blog, Languages in the Philippines: A Challenge for Basic Education, it is pointed out that even in schools where one language is dominant, there are still a substantial number of students that speak a different language. Masbateño, for example, is a language spoken by a significant fraction of households in region 5 in the Philippines, and is the major language in the province of Masbate, but schools in Masbate have been designated to use Bicolano, a language distinct from Masbateño and spoken by the majority from Region 5. In addition, finding teachers that can teach all subjects in the native tongue of each pupil enrolled in any one of these schools is perhaps close to impossible.

To preserve the mother tongue of a child, continuing instruction beyond home and into preschool, kindergarten and the elementary years is needed. If this is the objective then having at least part of the instruction during these years in the native tongue can be very helpful. This is much less demanding than mother tongue based multilingual education. Most of the subjects can therefore be taught in a second language. Of course, there is concern that development in a second language may simply compromise development in the native tongue. At least, in this case, there is effort to preserve fluency in the mother tongue.

A study published in the journal Child Development addresses the question of what happens to a child's proficiency in a native tongue after going through school where the medium of instruction is a second language.

The languages considered in the above study are Vietnamese and English. These two languages are obviously very different unlike Spanish versus English, Tagalog versus Spanish, or even Masbateño versus Bicolano. Vietnamese and English do not even share similar character sets. Thus, this study in so many ways is highly transferable to other languages if one is asking the question of whether learning in English is detrimental to one's native tongue.

The pupils in this study are given 90-minute instruction in Vietnamese everyday, in addition to the normal classes, all taught in English, in the first five years of basic education. Thus, throughout these years, considerable effort is made to help children continue developing in their native tongue. The results of the study are summarized in the graphs below. These are measures of receptive vocabulary (being able to point to a picture that matches a given word) and expressive vocabulary (being able to name what a picture depicts) in both languages, Vietnamese (shown as dashed line) and English (shown as solid line), receptive is shown on the left and expressive is on the right:

I guess, in a way, this mimics my own experience. I can read posts on Facebook in Tagalog without any difficulty (receptive), but it is harder for me to post in Tagalog (expressive). As seen in the above figures, the ability that lags is expressive vocabulary in the native tongue. It should be emphasized, however, that for young children there is significant progress in both languages and the native tongue is not really fully compromised.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Learning in Steps

There are clearly stages in human learning. Reading, for example, starts with recognizing letters followed by short and familiar words like "mom", "dad", "cat" and "dog". Short stories with pictures are, of course, favored by young children. Then, near the end of third grade, pupils are expected to jump from understanding stories to gathering information from text, a leap from fiction to nonfiction. The transition is quite dramatic such that it is quite common to see children stumble and fail at this stage. In Mathematics, the next challenging stage after learning about whole numbers is the fraction. Pause for a moment and imagine a child who has been told over and over again that 4 is always greater than 3. It is then easy to see that it may be quite shocking for this child to be told that the opposite is true for 1/4 and 1/3. Then, one can follow that by asking which one is bigger, 2/7 or 3/8?

Understanding fractions is a very important stage in mathematics. Failing at this point usually means trouble ahead in algebra, the next stage where functions are introduced. Designing a curriculum can therefore benefit greatly if concepts to be learned are mapped to show correlations. This enables identification of how skills and concepts learned in earlier years predict success in more advanced materials.

Before introducing fractions, students in most elementary schools are taught the following in mathematics. I am going to use specific examples of games that illustrate some of the math lessons taught in the early grades. Students in the early years, for example, are taught how to add:

Screen capture from FunBrain Cut It
Students are also trained to round off numbers. For example, in the game below, a child must find the ghost that represents the nearest hundred. In this specific case, to win, the child must guide mathman to eat the orange ghost marked 300.

Screen capture from Sheppard Software Mathman

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How Well Do We Read Online?

Unlike a textbook, what we read online has not necessarily been examined or evaluated for accuracy. The web pages we visit are usually not directly assigned by an instructor. Oftentimes, we have to browse through the internet to find something. Thus, reading online requires at least two skills: the ability to locate the right pages and the ability to evaluate critically their content. Hence, in this respect, online reading is quite different from reading a textbook.

This blog is viewed quite often in the Philippines as shown in the following ClustrMap for this past week:

On Facebook, posts that point to some of the articles on this blog could receive as many as 1000 likes;

Since I have access to the records of this blog, I know that oftentimes the number of likes could easily outpace the times the article has been viewed, which of course leads to the question of whether people even bother to read the article. And we are not even asking if people had comprehended the article. That would be an entirely different question.

It is true that the web has a lot of content to offer and it is hoped that this blog contributes to providing useful and vetted information regarding basic education in the Philippines and the US. Still, it should be obvious that basic education must begin paying attention to how well students can read online content since such activity does require skills that are not necessarily relevant when one is reading a prescribed textbook. As mentioned above, locating the resource and critically evaluating the content are often not required if a student is simply handed a textbook to read.

A recent study from the University of Connecticut at Storrs published in the journal Reading Research Quarterly addresses this dilemma:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What Does Preschool Achieve?

I did not go to preschool. In fact, I did not even go to kindergarten. I went straight to first grade but my education really started at home. My parents attended to a small store in Pasig where I watched my father add up all the sales during the day. Those were my first lessons in Math. There were likewise newspapers at home. Those were my first lessons in Reading.

What fathers and mothers do at home with a young child contributes to learning. Parents can read books to their young children. Parents can teach their children to write their names. There is certainty that these activities help map a child's trajectory through formal schooling. It is therefore interesting to measure what preschool really does and how it relates to what parents do at home with a young child. There is a study that has attempted to answer these questions. "Do the Effects of Head Start Vary by Parental Preacademic Stimulation?", published in the journal Child Development, looks at thousands of children aged 3-4 years and examines the academic outcomes from the preschool academic program in the United States. Head Start is a federally funded preschool program that addresses the needs of children from low income families. The positive effects of Head Start are well known, but in this study, particular attention is likewise given to the academic support a child may be receiving from his or her parents:

There are three possible scenarios for the relationship between the benefits of preschool and what parents do at home. The first one is compensatory. In this picture, children who do not receive any support at home would benefit the most from the preschool program. Another possible relationship is one that is described by accumulated advantages. This happens when what happens in preschool is synergistic with what happens at home. Thus, with parental support, a child even benefits more from school. A third possible scenario is what the authors of the above study refer to as Goldilocks (not too hot, not too cold, just right). In this outcome, those who benefit the most are those who are receiving some support from home. This happens if the program expects something going on at home as well. It cannot be completely compensatory. The benefits also diminish if parents are doing so much already at home that the preschool program is simply a repeat. Here are the results (these figures are copied from Miller, E. B., Farkas, G., Vandell, D. L. and Duncan, G. J. (2014), Do the Effects of Head Start Vary by Parental Preacademic Stimulation?. Child Development, 85: 1385–1400. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12233.

In math, Head Start is clearly compensatory. Children whose parents do not provide learning activities at home benefit greatly in early math skills when enrolled in a preschool program like Head Start. A child can therefore learn early math solely from school. A child can also learn early math solely from home.

In reading, a "Goldilocks" scenario is observed. Reading skills and habits are not learned solely from school. These must be reinforced at home. What a child experiences inside a preschool must be supported by parents at home. Early literacy is achieved only with collaboration between school and home. What a school can achieve is limited if there is no support at home. On the other hand, a child whose parents provide ample support can learn how to read solely at home, without any preschool.

With vocabulary, there seems to be no pattern at all. However, as in the previous two measures, parental educational stimulation still has a positive effect.

Academically, preschool can indeed compensate in math and support in reading. Since the effects are much more evident with children who either receive low or medium support at home, this needs to be kept in mind. Parents who are able to provide academic stimulation to their children at home do not really need to send their children to preschool. On the other hand, preschool cannot completely replace what parents ought to do at home for their children to learn.

Of course, preschool does a lot more than helping parents educate their young. Preschool allows parents to work during the day and introduces young children to a social setting. It is this fact plus the added bonus of academic benefits that makes preschool an attractive endeavor for society.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Making Our Schools Better Is Not Easy

This blog is now on its third year. It has been viewed more than a million times by more than three hundred thousand visitors. Most are from the Philippines. One thing that should be obvious by now is that improving basic education is really no easy task. In fact, even under circumstances that seem highly favorable, good results may still not be forthcoming. Take, for example, a study made by Roland Fryer

Additional hours in school, the best teachers and administrators, private tutoring, data-informed instruction, and an environment that supports success - and yet, all of these combined results only in a modest increase in math scores, 0.15 to 0.18 standard deviations per year. And there is almost no effect on reading comprehension. Seriously, what else did Fryer miss?

An answer to this mystery is provided by Willingham on his blog:

...Thus, it may be that researchers saw puny effects because they had to skimp on the most important factor: sustained engagement with challenging academic content.

This explanation is also relevant to the math/reading difference. In math, if you put a little extra time in, it’s at least obvious where that time should go. If kids are behind in mathematics, it’s not difficult to know what they need to work on. Once kids reach upper elementary school, reading comprehension is driven primarily by background knowledge; knowing a bit about the topic of the text you’re reading confers a big advantage to comprehension. Kids from impoverished homes suffer primarily from a knowledge deficit (Hirsch, 2007).

So a bit of extra time, while better than nothing, is just a start at an attempt to build the knowledge needed for these students to make significant strides in reading comprehension. And in this particular intervention, no attempt was made to assess what knowledge was needed and to build it systematically.

This problem is not unique in Fryer’s intervention. As he notes, it’s always tougher to move the needle on reading than on math. That’s because experiences outside of the classroom make such an enormous contribution to reading ability....
The difference between the effects on math and reading is indeed a clue. Education is not only about acquiring skills for these skills are not built from a vacuum, but from a body of knowledge that a student is able to build.

That is why education reforms that promise too much are often truly empty. There is no doubt that in the Philippines, all five interventions described above are not likely to be found in its public schools. The above mainly describes the implementation required to be effective. Implementation, however, is only one part of the picture. What to deliver is, of course, defined by the curriculum. The content of a curriculum is likewise important. Sadly, DepEd K+12, the new curriculum for basic education in the Philippines, with its heavy emphasis on inquiry and spiral progression, still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of quality of content. Thus, Philippine schools suffer both in curriculum and delivery. Making schools better is not easy....

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Why Intervention in the Early Years Is More Important

A great weakness in the new DepEd's K+12 curriculum of the Philippines is its focus on the later years of basic education. Intervention in the later years is extremely challenging and often unsuccessful. There are obvious reasons why inadequacies in the earlier grades of elementary school cannot be remedied by additional years in high school. One of these reasons is that young children are much more malleable than adolescents. This is supported by evidence from research as illustrated in a paper published in Child Development:

The study basically demonstrates that children who are falling behind their peers in language skills at age four are very likely to remain behind in their adolescent years. Of course, the study does not imply that a child, who is challenged in language between the ages 4 and 10, is hopeless. Children can improve and grow. What the study is emphasizing, however, is that addressing children falling behind is easier during the early years:

Above copied from Child Development

Friday, September 19, 2014

Instructional Continuity

Truancy, when a student does not attend school for a good reason, is a serious problem in education, but there are certainly acceptable and mitigating circumstances behind absences like inclement weather. In fact, schools are often suspended for the safety of pupils, teachers and staff when weather conditions are considered hazardous. Take, for example, the current flooding of the National Capital Region in the Philippines:

Above copied from the Philippine Star
School disruptions especially with climate change are likely to become more frequent. At Georgetown University, for example, faculty are encouraged to devise ways to minimize interruptions in instruction. There is in fact a web resource at the university devoted to this issue: Instructional Continuity

To visit this page, please click here

Of course, the tools and strategies provided above may not at all be possible in the Philippines. Much of the examples require a dependable and accessible internet, which is not necessarily present in all of the households in the country. But there are strategies that can be implemented without the world wide web. This simply requires planning ahead of time and designing homework which students can then do in case schools are suspended. These activities could be as simple as reading and writing assignments, or answering worksheets in mathematics. Learning does not have to stop if schools are closed. And as important, one reason why schools are closed during inclement weather is the safety of the children. This should likewise not be overlooked.

Children enjoying the river in Paete, Laguna after the monsoon rains

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Can a Child Tell the Difference between a Good Teacher and a Bad One?

There are various traits that define an effective teacher so perhaps, it is useful to focus on one trait. Can a child tell if a teacher is a reliable source of information? This question is specific enough that it could be addressed in an experiment. Researchers from Boston University have in fact performed a study to find out if children can discern credibility. The study published in the journal Child Development is entitled "“Why Does Rain Fall?”: Children Prefer to Learn From an Informant Who Uses Noncircular Explanations":

Children can indeed tell if someone is just pulling their leg. Whether this is simply a hunch is addressed by the above experiment. The study involves thirty three children, seventeen are 3-year olds and sixteen are 5-year olds. All have English as their native tongue and all come from either middle-class or upper middle-class households who visit the Boston Museum of Science. Given a phenomenon like rainfall, the children are provided with two explanations, one that just goes around and provides no explanation, and another that actually explains. The following are examples:

Above copied from “Why Does Rain Fall?”: Children Prefer to Learn From an Informant Who Uses Noncircular Explanations
Experiments 1 and 2 are the long and short versions, respectively. After the children have gone through the above examples, a new set of situations are introduced, and again with two sets of answers, one from each of the informants in the previous experiment:

Above copied from “Why Does Rain Fall?”: Children Prefer to Learn From an Informant Who Uses Noncircular Explanations
In the above, both responses are not circular and both sound plausible so it is really up to the children which response they would prefer. For novel explanations, all children prefer the answer given by the informant who provided a real explanation in the previous experiment. For novel labels, only the 5-year olds are discriminating, preferring once more the informant who is deemed more reliable the first time.

This study provides evidence that children are indeed able to gauge the credibility of an informant (or teacher) and the study thus concludes:

Perhaps, what is equally intriguing is why, as adults, some of us have grown to become quite gullible.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Can We Really Teach "Right versus Wrong"?

We all would like basic education to teach our children what is right and what is wrong. There are even specific subjects in schools on character education, proper manners and right conduct, and good citizenship. We look forward to schools that can help raise children who are more aware and caring for the environment. As moral beings, how we really choose between "right" and "wrong" is not well understood. A scientific experiment that addresses this question is extremely difficult to design but a simple question such as whether teaching morality makes a difference needs an answer. One challenge here is, oftentimes, we cannot even agree on what is right and what is wrong.

There is a new study published in Science that attempts for the first time to answer some of these important moral questions. The study is performed not in the laboratory, but in the real world, providing a a rare glimpse into the moral dynamics of a society. The study co-authored by Wilhelm Hofmann, Daniel C. Wisneski, Mark J. Brandt, and Linda J. Skitka has the following abstract:

The method employed by the researchers, ecological momentary assessment, makes use of smart phones which allow for signaling and assessing each individual participant randomly and five times daily for three days. Each participant therefore can report if he or she has committed or witnessed a moral or immoral act. Each participant is asked to describe the event under one of the following categories: Care/Harm, Fairness/Unfairness, Loyalty/Disloyalty, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation,  Liberty/Oppression, Honesty/Dishonesty, and Self-Discipline/Lack of Self-Discipline. Since the responses from the participants are self-reported, it should be clear that these individuals are citing moral or immoral acts based on what they perceive as moral or immoral. Hence, in this study, when a person reports committing an immoral act, he or she is aware that he is violating his or her own beliefs of what is right and what is wrong.  However, even in this large sampling, the survey also shows that there is considerable consensus among all participants on what constitutes a moral or immoral act. Both religiosity and political ideology are also gathered to see if these have an effect on a person's morality. Emotional outcomes such as happiness or guilt after a reported event are likewise included in participants' responses. Since the events are recorded chronologically, a correlation, if present between past and future events, can be drawn.

The study shows that religious and non-religious people are both likely to commit immoral acts. Where these two groups slightly differ is in their emotional response:

Above copied from supplementary material of
Religious people feel more guilty, shameful and embarrassed after committing an immoral act. Religious people likewise feel more proud, elevated and grateful after committing a moral act. Grouped according to political ideology, that is, liberal or conservative, the likelihood of misbehaving is the same, but there are fine differences in emphasis. Both groups do focus on care versus harm since this is the most reported category, but liberals seem to dwell more on fairness/unfairness, honesty/dishonesty, and liberty/oppression while conservatives seem to be more occupied with loyalty/disloyalty, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

Thus, it seems that knowledge alone does not determine whether a person would behave or misbehave. There are also correlations found between moral events. It is observed that committing a moral act earlier in the day is associated with an above-average likelihood of a subsequent immoral act and a decreased likelihood of a subsequent moral act. This sounds like earning a right to misbehave right after doing a good deed. Another correlation is that individuals who are at the receiving end of a good deed earlier in the day are more likely to behave later in the day. This one definitely shows that good character is seldom taught but often caught. Good acts can be contagious and can spread, but a good act can also lift self-righteousness which may be self perceived as a license to do bad.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Curriculum Can Destroy Education

The previous posts on this blog have been emphasizing the role of teachers and resources in student learning. These are the avenues through which learning in schools can be improved. The curriculum is viewed simply as a wish list. Without proper implementation, it simply remains a wish list. Although a curriculum can not be expected to solve problems in basic education, a badly designed curriculum can exacerbate problems.

A long standing debate in education is content versus skills. This dichotomy is actually untrue for deep learning involves acquisition of both content and skills. An editorial in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching recently revisited what defines "meaningful learning". It starts by presenting the following figure (originally from Ege, Coppola, & Lawton, Journal of Chemical Education, 74, 74–83):

Above copied from Journal of Research in Science Teaching
Volume 51, Issue 6, pages 679-693, 12 JUL 2014 DOI: 10.1002/tea.21165
Content and skills are not opposite sides of a pole. These are two orthogonal axes of learning. Students with low content but high skills have very limited factual knowledge, "someone who knows how to think, but who has nothing to think about." These are the "intellectual amnesiacs". Students with high content but low skills are likewise unable to progress since these students have not been able to develop skills necessary to transfer what they have learned into a new or different area. These are the "encyclopedist learners". What we need are the "expert learners", which from the above diagram is clearly a product of emphasizing both content and skills. The editors of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching are quick to point out that the argument of analogical versus rote learning is likewise a false dichotomy:

Above copied from Journal of Research in Science Teaching
Volume 51, Issue 6, pages 679-693, 12 JUL 2014 DOI: 10.1002/tea.21165
Meaningful learning as described by the chemistry faculty of the University of Michigan in their 1997 J. Chem. Ed. paper is:

In this light, one can look at a curriculum and ask if a student is indeed given ample opportunities to learn both skills and content. It is through this perspective that one could ask whether a spiral curriculum for both mathematics and the sciences in high school is the right or wrong way to go. The last sentence from the above excerpt answers this question. It is immersion that is required not a spiral progression through various topics or subjects....

Monday, September 15, 2014

Innovation and Reform in Education, Applied to My Child?

I am always tempted to ask those who have ideas on how to teach children or run schools whether they would apply the same to their own children and the schools their children attend. Neither the current secretary of DepEd nor the president of the Philippines would be able to answer that question. Still, perhaps we could ask whether it would apply to their nephews or nieces, if they have any. In the US, for example, where there is much talk about massive online open courses (MOOC), it would be interesting to find out if any of the advocates of this program actually send their children to a MOOC and not to a traditional college or university. I often wonder what the responses may be.

Last week, an interesting article that tackles a similar question was published in the New York Times:

And it is not just the late Steve Jobs who strictly limited technology use at home. There are other chief executives who share a similar parenting style. Below is an excerpt:
Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired and now chief executive of 3D Robotics, a drone maker, has instituted time limits and parental controls on every device in his home. “My kids accuse me and my wife of being fascists and overly concerned about tech, and they say that none of their friends have the same rules,” he said of his five children, 6 to 17. “That’s because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.” 
The dangers he is referring to include exposure to harmful content like pornography, bullying from other kids, and perhaps worse of all, becoming addicted to their devices, just like their parents...
...Children under 10 seem to be most susceptible to becoming addicted, so these parents draw the line at not allowing any gadgets during the week. On weekends, there are limits of 30 minutes to two hours on iPad and smartphone use. And 10- to 14-year-olds are allowed to use computers on school nights, but only for homework....
"Innovation and Reform in Education, Applied to My Child?" is an interesting question. Apparently, the responses are likewise interesting....

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Copying from Educational Systems Abroad

"A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing." That is why scientific work requires identification and control of every variable that may affect the outcomes being measured or observed. Establishing causation requires much more than just discovering a correlation. Ignoring these rules can easily lead to conclusions being drawn without the proper basis. It is very tempting to find a "smoking gun" that explains what is sought. The intentions are often good, to copy what seems to be working. Not covering all bases, however, only leads to failure especially when important points are missed. Some countries are doing much better in international exams on mathematics so it is only reasonable to look at these countries, learn from them, and transfer the good things about their system to ours. An example of such thinking is illustrated by a piece published several months ago in the New York Times. It is an article by Elizabeth Green, "Why Do Americans Stink at Math?". The following is an excerpt:
"...Instead of having students memorize and then practice endless lists of equations — which Takahashi remembered from his own days in school — Matsuyama taught his college students to encourage passionate discussions among children so they would come to uncover math’s procedures, properties and proofs for themselves. One day, for example, the young students would derive the formula for finding the area of a rectangle; the next, they would use what they learned to do the same for parallelograms. Taught this new way, math itself seemed transformed. It was not dull misery but challenging, stimulating and even fun...."
Green basically attributes the success of Japanese schools in teaching math on a constructivist pedagogy and then suggests that the reason why American schools are not successful is the lack of training of teachers on how to implement effectively these lessons. Tom Loveless has an article in Brookings that debunk Green's assertion. Loveless writes:
"The July 27, 2014 edition of the New York Times Sunday Magazine featured an article by Elizabeth Green entitled “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” In this blog post, I identify six myths promulgated in that article. Let me be clear at the outset. I am an admirer of Elizabeth Green’s journalism and am sympathetic to the idea that improving teaching would raise American math achievement. But this article is completely off base. Its most glaring mistake is giving the impression that a particular approach to mathematics instruction—referred to over the past half-century as “progressive,” “constructivist,” “discovery,” or “inquiry-based”—is the answer to improving mathematics learning in the U.S. That belief is not supported by evidence...."
One evidence that Loveless cites is the following:

Teachers’ Reports on How Often They Ask Students to Do Reasoning Tasks
Never or Almost Never
Some Lessons
Most Lessons
Every Lesson
7%   (594)
55% (604)
37% (608)
24% (495)
50% (498)
26% (514)
Source: Table 5.11, IEA Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), 1994-1995, page 160.
The above clearly shows that the difference between American and Japanese students of about 100 points is maintained across the board. It does not matter whether a student receives “progressive,” “constructivist,” “discovery,” or “inquiry-based” instruction. And among Japanese students, having more lessons that require reasoning tasks leads to only small differences. Another point that Loveless raises is the shadow education in Japan called juku. The Economist had an article on juku several years ago:
Above copied from The Economist
These "cramming schools" in Japan, as Loveless is suggesting, may be a significant factor behind the difference between the performance of Japanese and American students:
"...An alternative hypothesis to Green’s story is this: perhaps because of jukus Japanese teachers can take their students’ fluency with mathematical procedures for granted and focus lessons on problem solving and conceptual understanding. American teachers, on the other hand, must teach procedural fluency or it is not taught at all...."
Shadow education is very pervasive especially in Asian countries that have done well recently in international exams, as illustrated in a study published recently in the Journal of International and Comparative Education:

The scope of shadow education in Asian countries is vast, capturing the majority of all students. The statistics above must give pause to anyone claiming that the success in schools in these countries may be emulated by simply copying their curriculum and pedagogy. That would not be accurate at all if shadow education, which is significant, is ignored. Ignoring shadow education means dismissing rote approaches to learning. That would be a huge mistake....

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Celebrating Teachers' Month (September 5 to October 5)

In the Philippines, an entire month (September 5 to October 5) is dedicated to recognizing teachers by virtue of a proclamation made by the current president in 2011. The month ends on October 5, which coincides with the world's celebration of Teachers' Day. This year, the post office of the Philippines has issued a special stamp expressing gratitude to teachers in the Philippines:

Above photo copied from Philippine Star
The representative of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers, Antonio Tinio, in the Philippine Congress speaks about how the Philippine government is urging its citizens to show appreciation of teachers:
"“To express sincere gratitude for teachers,” DepEd has advised its regional and division offices and students to give “thank you” cards, free makeover and spa treatments, discounts, or freebies to teachers, also to hang streamers and hold contests to honor teachers, from September 5 to October 5."

It is disheartening to watch the video and see how many seats in Congress are empty and hear people engaging in conversations in the background as Tinio speaks. Still the message should be clear. As Tinio states, "The most meaningful way of commemorating National Teachers’ Month, the most sincere expression of gratitude for our children’s second parents, is by giving full effect to their rights—to living salary, adequate remuneration, stability of employment and security of tenure, professional advancement, union rights, among others."

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Martial Arts as an Intervention Tool in Basic Education

In search for innovations in education, we frequently look at new tools or technology. There is no doubt that computers, for example, can aid in education. However, there is a distinct possibility that some methods we have inherited from past generations can do the same. After all, basic education has been a human endeavor for so long.

One key determinant in learning is the executive function of the brain. The executive function includes self-control, staying focused, discipline, and flexibility. Without these capabilities, learning can become a very difficult task. It is one reason why classroom management in the early years is particularly important. Of course, in the old days, discipline was strictly enforced in each classroom. Nowadays, independence combined with a sense of responsibility is preferred. This new way obviously demands a lot more from a child's executive function. It is clear that children vary from each other in the way they develop executive function. Some demonstrate the ability quite early while some are a bit late especially children who have an attention deficit - hyperactive disorder as well as those who fit in the autism spectrum disorder. But even without these disorders, it is no secret that developing executive function is a challenging task.

Executive function is truly central to the future of a child. A study published in the Proc. Natl. Acad. USA by Moffitt and coworkers states in its abstract, "Following a cohort of 1,000 children from birth to the age of 32 y, we show that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes, following a gradient of self-control. Effects of children's self-control could be disentangled from their intelligence and social class as well as from mistakes they made as adolescents. In another cohort of 500 sibling-pairs, the sibling with lower self-control had poorer outcomes, despite shared family background. Interventions addressing self-control might reduce a panoply of societal costs, save taxpayers money, and promote prosperity."

Thus, developing executive function is necessary for basic education. There have been various executive function interventions that have already been studied and evaluated. A review published in Science in 2011 examines some of these:

To be successful takes creativity, flexibility, self-control, and discipline. Central to all those are executive functions, including mentally playing with ideas, giving a considered rather than an impulsive response, and staying focused. Diverse activities have been shown to improve children’s executive functions: computerized training, noncomputerized games, aerobics, martial arts, yoga, mindfulness, and school curricula. All successful programs involve repeated practice and progressively increase the challenge to executive functions. Children with worse executive functions benefit most from these activities; thus, early executive-function training may avert widening achievement gaps later. To improve executive functions, focusing narrowly on them may not be as effective as also addressing emotional and social development (as do curricula that improve executive functions) and physical development (shown by positive effects of aerobics, martial arts, and yoga).

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Trends in US Teaching Force

Ingersoll, Merrill and Stuckey from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania have looked closely at data on teachers in the United States to explore what changes have occurred within the teaching force during the past 25 years. In their report, Seven Trends: The Transformation of the Teaching Force, they pointed out the following: Teachers in 2012 compared to teachers in 1987 are larger in numbers, younger, less experienced, more female, more diverse by ethnicity, similar in academic abilities, and are less likely to stay teaching. Here are some of the graphs that support the above trends (copied from the original report):

The number of teachers has grown faster than students. The higher increase in the number of teachers can be attributed to a variety of reasons such as reduction in classroom sizes, special education, english language learners, and preschool education.

The above graph actually captures critical turning points in time. The average age of a teacher may have indeed increased from 1987 to 2007, but this trend would now reverse. In 1987, the age distribution is much narrower with a mode (most common age) of 41. In 2007, the distribution became much broader with a new mode at 55. But in 2011, the mode has dramatically dropped to 30. The younger age, of course, correlates with teachers in 2011 having less experience than those in 1987:

Another trend that is continuing is that more and more teachers are female:

It is interesting to compare the above trends with those in the Philippines.

In the United States, during 1987-2011, the number of teachers grew twice as fast as the students. In the Philippines, using the period 2004 to 2010, the number of teachers has grown by 11.4%, which is not that large compared to how fast the number of pupils has increased: 8.2%. Thus, there is no surprise that in the Philippines the pupil to teacher ratio has remained very high.

With regard to age, the distribution for teachers is obviously grayer:

Nearly half of elementary school teachers are more than 50 years old, with 16% above 60 in 2009.

There are similarities and there are differences. But one data point that applies only to the Philippines is shown in the following table:

The United States is the top destination of Philippine teachers deployed abroad. It is useful to look at these trends. These provide meaningful snapshots of the teaching force of a country. These can either raise serious concerns or comfort....

Monday, September 8, 2014

Efficiency and Effectiveness of a School System

The school system can be viewed as a production line that has both input and output. The starting materials are the resources while the education outcomes comprise the result. Considering the output and comparing this with what went in can provide a rough measure for efficiency. An efficient system is one that achieves so much even with quite limited resources. A recent report attempts to assess the efficiency of school systems worldwide by taking into account teacher salaries and pupil to teacher ratio as indicators of input and test scores in an international standardized test score as a gauge for the output:

To read the report, visit this link
The results of the study are summarized in the following ranking:

According the above ranking, countries have also been divided into the following five groups:
GROUP 1 Elite Performers : There is always room for improvement despite the fact that these countries score well in both the efficiency and quality stakes. 
1 Finland | 2 Japan | 3 Korea 
GROUP 2 Efficient and Effective : These countries are doing relatively well on both efficiency and producing high PISA scores. They are not in the Elite benchmark countries but they are close. 
14 Australia | 15 Czech Republic | 20 New Zealand | 22 Slovenia 
GROUP 3 More Effective than Efficient : Overspending or bloated These countries perform better in quality measures than in terms of efficiency. This may be because they can prioritise outcomes over cost, it may be because their system generates other outcomes that aren’t captured by PISA rankings. Or more simply, it may be because the system is over-resourced beyond a threshold required to drive quality increases. 
4 Austria | 5 Belgium | 6 Denmark | 7 Germany | 8 Ireland | 9 Italy 10 Netherlands | 11 Portugal | 12 Spain | 13 Switzerland 
GROUP 4 More Efficient than Effective : Underspending or underperforming These countries, by comparison, are more efficient than educationally effective. This could be for the simple reason that they have constraints which prevent their system from moving to the next level (e.g. low salaries may prevent the teaching profession from being able to recruit highly skilled individuals). More interestingly, if extensive resources are already being deployed, it could be the case that underlying flaws exist in the education delivery model – the system has the potential to increase outputs for no additional inputs by making policy changes. 
16 France | 17 Hungary | 18 Iceland | 19 Israel | 21 Norway | 23 Sweden | 24 UK | 25 USA 
GROUP 5 Inefficient and Ineffective : These systems are inefficient and at the same time do not produce comparatively good outcomes. The ultimate ambition is to occupy a space in the upper-right quadrant, but progression either horizontally or vertically (increasing quality or efficiency) in the first instance could be the catalyst to drive improvements in both dimensions. 
26 Brazil | 27 Chile | 28 Greece | 29 Indonesia | 30 Turkey

The Philippines is not included in the above study but it is quite straightforward to determine where it belongs. The Philippines in its brief participation in international exams ranks similarly to Indonesia. How much the Philippines invests in public education in terms of teachers' salaries and classroom sizes is likewise as dismal as those in Indonesia. Thus, the Philippines clearly belongs to the Inefficient and Ineffective Group.

Effectiveness requires minimum input. With classroom shortages and poor working conditions for teachers, the Philippines cannot expect a good outcome from its school system. Philippine basic education also suffers in terms of efficiency. The reason here is its focus on excellence and competition. There are elite schools that are very selective in its enrollment and at the same time, these schools likewise attract the best teachers. Hence, much of the resources which are already severely limited go to where these are least needed. The emphasis on excellence sacrifices equity. Students who need most and schools that require more resources are simply neglected and ignored. Such school system therefore takes pride in producing quite a few excellent alumni while leaving most of the population poorly educated. Clearly, in order for the Philippines to improve its education system, it must dramatically change its culture. It must switch from a focus on excellence to an emphasis on equity. This addresses efficiency and solves half of the problem. For the other half, there is no solution other than increasing the budget for education. The number of children in the Philippines has grown significantly in the past decade. This alone requires greater funding.

With the above in mind, it should be crystal clear that changing the curriculum does not address any of these problems. DepEd's K+12 does not and can not solve the problems of Philippine basic education.