Showing posts from February, 2015

"Education Experts" Lack Expertise?

Three years ago, when this blog started, retired professor Flor Lacanilao lamented over the media coverage of education policies. In A Critique of Some Commentaries on the Philippine K-12 Program, a stark contrast between who gets wide media coverage and who does not was highlighted. Lacanilao's exact words were "Note further that the nonscientist authors and cited authorities include prominent people in education, and that these nonscientist authors and cited authorities enjoy wide media coverage. I think this situation explains the present state of Philippine education." Lacanilao actually cited one of my articles as among those not receiving attention in spite of his opinion that what I wrote was supported by properly published studies. To establish expertise, Lacanilao was using an individual's record of research contribution as measured by how frequently one's publication had been cited by others. Such measurement, for instance, was reflected on the individu…

Cooperation in Teaching

I served once in the College Executive Council at Georgetown and during one meeting, the dean noticed chalk marks on my clothes. The dean then expressed a feeling of satisfaction knowing that I was actually teaching that day. Teachers are supposed to teach after all. Attending meetings consumes one's time and takes away opportunities to do actual tasks. Meetings are important, however, if individuals are expected to work as a team. Thus, there is an obvious need to balance the two since efforts to work as a community may in fact impede an individual to do the more important task of actually teaching.

It is interesting to survey how much of the world's teachers in basic education actually work as a team. The OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) provides a good starting point to answer this question. The following graph provides, for instance, an average picture of how a teacher spends his or her working hours per week:

The above figure displays the time spent…

A Science Night at an Elementary School

My five-year old daughter and I spent last evening at Mason Crest Elementary School. It was a family science night and the "museum without walls" of the Children's Science Center was inside the school's cafeteria. The evening started with a competition between two balls, "Rey Ricochet" and "The King Bouncer". It was the night to see which ball could bounce higher.

A bouncing ball competition was an opportunity to introduce to young minds polymers. It was a glimpse at how the structure at the molecular level could define properties of materials. There was even a model composed of eight kids (my daughter was representing one repeating unit of the polymer) to illustrate cross linking.

Does Differentiated Instruction Work?

I just received an email reminding me of the controversial commentary from James R. Delisle posted last month on Education Week. The title of Delisle's article is "Differentiation Doesn't Work". In this blog, I am posing it as a question instead. To answer such query, however, is not an easy task. Differentiated instruction is very complex as it involves assessment, planning and flexibility. All of these tasks hinge on the qualities of the teacher. A teacher who understands where his or her students stand is a good teacher. A teacher who tailors his or her lessons to maximize student's engagement is a good teacher. A teacher who can recognize that something is not working and needs to be adjusted is a good teacher.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is one of the pioneers of differentiated instruction. The Harvard Education Letter had a piece on differentiated instruction several years ago in which some of Tomlinson's views were highlighted:
While she would never say that dif…

Intelligent Tutoring Systems

What is inside a learner's mind can be very useful to an instructor. Knowing ahead of time misconceptions a student may have allows for a teacher to remediate effectively. Learning benefits from a responsive exchange between a teacher and a student. This is a distinct disadvantage in large classes where a teacher's knowledge of where each student stands is severely compromised. There are computer systems that are now available that are targeted to provide both student modeling as well as adaptive remediation. These are called intelligent tutoring systems.

An intelligent tutoring system (ITS) is not a simple computer based instructional system. Defining characteristics of an ITS have been recently compiled by Ma and coworkers:
An ITS is a computer system that for each student:1. Performs tutoring functions by (a) presenting information to be learned, (b) asking questions or assigning learning tasks, (c) providing feedback or hints, (d) answering questions posed by students, or (…

Asking a President to Resign and a Salary Raise

Teachers belonging to the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) in the Philippines are scheduled for a sit-down strike this Tuesday, February 24, 2015. The strike reiterates the teachers' demand for a salary increase as mandated by law, Republic Act 4670 or the Magna Carta of Public School Teachers. The Salary Standardization Law likewise dictates that salaries of government workers which include teachers be adjusted every three years. No raises have been made since according to the president, the government simply has no funds for a pay hike.

Of course, ACT is quick to point out that the president however has funds for the Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP) and Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF). Both programs have been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the Philippines. On top of the chief executive's refusal to grant salary increases, the recent massacre of police officers in Mamapasano, Maguindanao earns President Aquino III the title "Teac…

A Disturbing Trend

A colleague dropped by my office yesterday. Seeing that I was writing an article on education, he asked whether I had visited schools lately to see the individuals teaching our children. He inquired if I had noticed how young the teachers were. He likewise queried if I thought the teachers had children of their own. Then he lamented on how much knowledge had exploded recently and rhetorically asked whether I thought the teachers I saw were up to the task. It was good that the question was rhetorical because I did not know how to respond.

There are encouraging trends in basic education in the United States. As reported in the Educational Researcher December 2014 issue, individuals who have recently entered the teaching profession are increasingly coming from the top third of high school graduates, based on SAT scores. Unfortunately, there are other trends which only amplify the doubt raised by my colleague. One trend comes from a closer examination of the results from the Programme for…

Learning to Walk Before One Could Stand

It was very exciting to see for the first time my son standing inside his crib. He was still clinging on the crib rail but his smile was definitely gleaming with an aura of accomplishment. After being able to stand on one's legs for some time, the next challenge was to move. I could not wait to see him walk on his own. It was tempting to buy one of those walkers that could help a baby move within a room.

It was important to consider though that years ago, Siegel and Burton had already cautioned parents not to use walkers. In an article published in the journal Developmental and Behavioral Practices, the following developmental delays as measured by Bayley Indexes were presented.

Walkers in this study are divided into two groups to illustrate precisely why such supports may hamper an infant's development. An occluding walker is a walker equipped with plastic trays that prevent the baby from seeing his or her legs. This type of walker is apparently the worse in terms of delaying…

If You Think Reading Is Problematic, Try Writing

I asked my son why he finds writing very difficult. First, he said it was boring. So I qualified my question, "What if the subject was interesting?" My son replied that he still would not be eager to write because writing for him was something "private". We do bare ourselves when we write so my son does have a point. Teaching a child to write could be extremely challenging. I was a child once. I was not good at writing and I did not like writing at all. Not being capable at something often was a good enough reason not to like. In fact, it took me until college to write intelligibly. My writing did not go anywhere especially when I did not even have any idea of where to begin. It was like trying to squeeze something out of a dry sponge.

It was hard then. Now, it is my turn to help a child write.

I tried to use a prompt to see if that could help my son write a story. There are picture prompts available on the internet that one may use. I picked the following:

After t…

When Something Does Not Work

Multiple factors determine student performance and some of these factors are key. Good health, for instance, is expected to be an important factor. With this in mind, a good night sleep is worth our attention. Sleep not only allows for a body to rest, but also prepares the brain for the next day. Irritability and difficulty in paying attention are among the common results of sleep deficiency. Sleep deprivation is therefore a possible hindrance to good learning. It is thus expected that a positive correlation exists between having adequate quality sleep and performance in school. For this reason, school start times have become a variable that one may tweak to help improve student performance. Starting school very early in the morning forces a child to wake up early, reducing the number of hours a child could possibly sleep. Numerous studies have shown that later school times can indeed improve student performance.

Of course, it is still possible to see scenarios where what is expected …

Reading: We Learn in Steps

For several sessions now, the karate class is nothing but a repetition of evasive moves. The instructor says, "right", and we're supposed to move to our right. When we hear "left", we need to slide to our left. "Jump" means we jump, and most importantly, when "duck" is shouted, we must duck. Over and over again, we practice. The instructor explains that our brain must learn to automatically associate moves with the commands we hear. Sometimes, I wonder if our karate instructor know some neuroscience. Certainly, we are not our instructors's first class of students. So perhaps, the instructor has either learned this pedagogical technique from experience or from his master.

Going through these karate lessons reminds me of my years in elementary school. The teacher points to a poster with the following, and the entire class simply recites what is written over and over again: "a e i o u, ba be bi bo, bu, ka ke ki ko ku, da de di do du,..…

A Tale of Two Interventions

"In much of the rest of the world there is evolutionary change, grounded in the assumption that if professionals keep working at something, they can make continual improvements. In China and Japan, for example, curricula change much less frequently and much more slowly than in the United States. To begin with, these curricula are carefully conceived and known to be reasonably effective. These curricula are refined on the basis of classroom observations and student performance. Teachers make the curriculum a collaborative object of study, working to find better ways to teach lessons or to improve them. In that way, gradual and sustained improvements are made...." -Alan H. Schoenfeld, Professor of Education, UC, Berkeley
How learning happens inside a classroom is affected by so many factors. The curriculum is one small factor influencing learning outcomes in schools. A written curriculum is likewise not necessarily identical to what is being delivered to students. There are in…

The Problem With Reading

Like mathematics, learning to read is an essential part of basic education. Reading, after all, is an important gateway to the other disciplines. Unfortunately, compared to mathematics, students in the United States have not improved as much in reading comprehension. Based on the results of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams, progress in reading comprehension is lagging behind the improvement in mathematics over the past two decades.

The uninspiring growth in reading scores becomes even more evident when one looks beyond the mean scores and examines how scores are distributed throughout the past years.

The bars for math in the figure above when combined start to look like a parallelogram while the bars for reading look very much like a rectangle. Over the past twenty years, the percent of students reaching basic level in math has grown from 48 to 82 percent. In reading, the growth is much less spectacular, from 60 to 67 percent. In 1990, only 12 percent of studen…

Cognitive Strategy Instruction on Math Problem Solving

If I see thirty six legs in a polar bear exhibit, and each polar bear has four legs, how many polar bears are there inside the exhibit? This was one of the questions in my son's math homework last night. He was quite confident. He said he would show me how he actually thought about the problem. So he started drawing "circles", each one with four "smaller circles" inside:

As he drew each circle, I could hear him counting in fours: 4, 18, 12, 16, 20, 24, 28 .... and as he approached 36, he slowed down with his drawing. Of course, if my son was already fluent with division, he could have just simply written the following:

This would also be quite acceptable. In either case, it should be clear that a specific approach to solving the problem was taken. Problem solving can be taught by worked examples. Worked examples, unfortunately, do not necessarily express on their own the line of thought used in solving the problem. There are of course examples out there in vari…

How Should We Make Lessons More Challenging

Learning materials are tools that assist a student. Lessons become more concrete, for instance, with manipulatives. Providing too much, however, is not ideal since lessons can become too specific that critical characteristics of a material to be learned can be easily misinterpreted. Oftentimes, superficial traits become incorrectly equated with distinguishing features. As a result, going to the next lesson or transferring what is learned to a different situation becomes much more difficult. Effective lessons therefore require a balance between accessibility and difficulty. There is indeed a continuum between direct instruction and discovery-based learning. Finding just the right amount of scaffolding allows for students to find an activity doable and at the same time, challenging. The key is introducing "desirable difficulties". These are difficulties that should extend the lesson and avoid cosmetic scaffolds that may introduce irrelevant or incorrect generalizations.

One ti…

Should I Explain Or Should I Listen?

There are two methods through which one may teach. Showing examples is one (Worked Examples) and another is allowing for students to provide their solution on their own (Generation). Both can lead to better performance. How two entirely different approaches to teaching can both lead to enhancing learning can be explained by examining the material to be learned and the background of the student. How much guidance a student needs depends on two things, the complexity (or novelty) of the material and the expertise of the learner. This dependence comes mainly from the cognitive architecture of the human brain.

The material to be learned can either demand resources from either long term memory or the working memory. Long term memory deals with materials that have been learned while the working memory serves as a scratch pad for the specific task in hand. How much is present in one's long term memory defines expertise. One of education's objectives is to increase what is stored in t…

The Iceberg Effect

Pure ice is less dense than either water or seawater so it floats, but only about ten percent of its volume is visible above the surface. Thus, the "tip of an iceberg" is an expression commonly used when only a small part of the problem is apparent. With the challenges public education systems face, standardized test scores are often used as gauges. There is nothing wrong in paying attention to scores in standardized exams. The problem lies in how conclusions are drawn especially when the picture provided by test scores is simply a "tip of an iceberg". Test scores are measures of student outcomes. These numbers do not tell, for example, the reasons behind a student's performance. I can stand on a balance and measure my weight. At the end of such procedure, I do get a number describing my weight, but it does not tell me the real reasons behind the numbers that I see.

In education, no one can deny the fact that scores in international standardized exams are infor…