“The Tweet Heard ‘Round the Edu World”

With one week of classes left in this semester, I am trying to cast off my courses without dropping any stitches, and resisting the temptation to write a post in response to Louie C.K.’s heartfelt tweets about his child’s math experience.  Luckily Ilana Horn has taken care of it in The Tweet Heard ‘Round the Edu World.  I particularly appreciate her attention to the question of equity (the Vermont counterpoint to Williams vs. California is, of course, the Brigham decision).  Standards that are “public and transparent” are a necessary, though sadly not sufficient, response to the entrenched inequities in public education in the United States.  We’re not done until those kids whose parents or guardians are unable to advocate for them, via Twitter or otherwise, have the same educational opportunity as everyone else.  From the Brigham decision:  “Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be available to all on equal terms.”

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Listening to Teachers

My essay, “Listening to Teachers,” appears in the May Notices of the American Mathematical Society.  I’ve already gotten a thoughtful email response from a practicing teacher;  I’d be interested in your responses.

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Comments on Ravitch’s MLA Speech (a reblog)

Even if you haven’t followed Diane Ravitch’s evolution as an education analyst, you may have seen evidence of her influence. Here is a careful commentary on Ravitch’s claims about the CCSS, from Cathy Kessel:

Mathematics and Education

The historian Diane Ravitch gave a speech to the Modern Language Association on January 11 about the past, present and future of the Common Core State Standards which was posted on a Washington Post blog. There’s a lot to like about the speech when it comes to rethinking uses of tests and test scores. I’ve been in favor of caution about testing since at least 1999 (see my article here).

However, the speech has some statements that are unclear, appear unaware of research in mathematics education, or seem uninformed. Some concern:

 Characteristics of standardized tests.

 Field testing standards.

Developmental appropriateness of the CCSS.

Development of the CCSS.

Details are below.

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Another Annoying Opening (and Middle, and Ending) from the Times

The latest entry in the “Making Life Harder for Math Teachers” category is last Sunday’s editorial from the New York Times, entitled “Who Says Math Has to be Boring?”  Not content with an insulting first line, the editorial board had to go with an insulting title.  The obvious response is “Who Says Math Is Boring, besides innumerate journalists?”

As for the rest of the editorial: Continue reading

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What’s in a Recommendation Form, and What’s Not

A student recently asked if I would serve as a reference for her application to Teach for America.  I said yes, as long as she understood my reservations about the organization, which she does.

The online recommendation form has a familiar format; first I filled in contact information, then I was asked to define the comparison group I had in mind, and then came attributes with buttons for me to select categories, each followed by a box in which I could add text.  The actual criteria, however, gave me pause.  After the jump, you can see the entire form.  Notice (a) how “Achievement,” “Critical Thinking,” and “Influencing/Motivating” are defined; and (b) how far down you have to look before you find the words “teaching” and “students.”

Continue reading

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Catching Up

It’s not that I haven’t been writing at all.  For example, I expanded on my New York Times letter from a while back and turned it into an Aftermath piece for Math Horizons magazine.

Then there was the public lecture I gave on campus at the end of October.  I knew that there would be a broad range of mathematical experiences in the audience, and I wanted the talk to be interactive.  This is a challenge every mathematician should take on at some point; it’s much different from giving someone at a cocktail party (do those still exist?) a vague idea of why you love math.  I used fractions as the thread connecting assessment (formative and summative), procedural vs. conceptual understanding, the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, and a little group theory.

At the end of my talk, among the questions from the audience was this, from a first-year student (not one of mine, but I hope to see him in a class at some point):  “You talked about changes teachers are making to help students understand concepts and not just procedures.  Is there anything being done in college-level math?”  So, college-level math instructors, how would you answer that?  I started out by saying that we have much more autonomy than public school teachers, which may be why there haven’t been large-scale organized efforts.  I went on to say (if I remember correctly) that there are individuals and groups of college faculty thinking about and discussing these issues.  I eventually worked my way around to saying that working with teachers has certainly improved my own teaching.  Note to self:  explain that in writing.

Here are a few items I’ve shared with my first-year seminar students recently:

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Concerning Inquiry-Based Learning

Thanks to another fine post from David Bressoud on his Launchings blog, I’ve just read “Assessing Long-Term Effects of Inquiry-Based Learning:  A Case Study from College Mathematics,” by Marina Kogan and Sandra L. Laursen.  The study collected data of various forms from mathematics courses at four universities, comparing students who took IBL courses with their counterparts who took the same courses in non-IBL formats.  I’ve read the whole thing, and so should you, but for now let’s jump to the conclusion:

College instructors using student-centered methods in the classroom are often called upon to provide evidence in support of the educational benefits of their approach — an irony, given that traditional lecture approaches have seldom undergone similar evidence-based scrutiny.

I’ll just insert an “amen” to that observation.  Moving on:

Our study indicates that the benefits of active learning experiences may be lasting and significant for some student groups, with no harm done to others.  Importantly, “covering” less material in inquiry-based sections had no negative effect on students’ later performance in the major.  Evidence for increased persistence is seen among the high-achieving students whom many faculty members would like to recruit and retain in their department.

The authors go on to suggest questions for future research.  I would be particularly interested in investigations of IBL-based introductory mathematics courses (this study focused on mid-level courses).

Going back, now, to the beginning of the paper, to the “Setting and Courses” section:

…despite variation among courses and instructors, several key characteristics differentiated the IBL courses from the non-IBL courses.  On average, about 60% of class time in IBL courses was spent on student-centered activities such as small group work, student presentation of problems at the board, or whole class discussion, while in non-IBL courses over 85% of class time consisted of the instructor talking.

I have occasionally described the changes I’ve been making to my own teaching as “talking less.”  That’s an oversimplification, of course, but I do hope I’d come in well under 85% most of the time.

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