Saturday, March 24, 2007

Maths education: Are we on the cusp of a counter reformation?

It seems that direct instruction is gaining in popularity these days. Many people are getting disenchanted with reform Maths. The following links have caught my attention this week:
The first is an article reporting on the work of Dr Ken Rowe of the Australian Council for Educational Research. Dr Rowe worked with primary school teachers, encouraging them to use direct instruction. He reports positive results that surprised him and the teachers alike. The second is a video presentation by Dr Cliff Mass of the University of Washington. He argues that a noticeable drop in the mathematical ability of freshmen coincided with the introduction of "reform math".

At teachers' college, most of my lecturers were wedded to the ideals of reform mathematics. They often told us that traditional maths did not make sense. It taught algorithms and methods in a disconnected way. Students could not see the connection between concepts and did not find maths engaging and meaningful. As a high school maths teacher, I find it hard to conclude that students are finding maths any more connected or meaningful as a result of their grounding in reform maths.

When I learned my mathematics in a very traditional school, I certainly found that it made sense. We were trained in the art of geometric proofs. This was something that engaged both our memories and higher thinking skills. We had to answer worded problems in arithmetic from an early age. Just because we did not work with manipulatives did not mean that we memorised algorithms and worked purely by rote.

My fear now is that we go back to the basics with the same zeal that we went into reform maths. Some of the leaders of the new movement ridicule the notion of maths teachers valuing problem-solving. I don't want us to throw the baby out with the bath water. The "reform" period has produced excellent research and teachers' practice cannot have stood still all this time.

What we need is to encourage teachers to use direct instruction and to really put back some meat into the maths curricula of the middle years. What we do not need is a witch hunt against teachers who employ some of the excellent activities that reform maths has brought to the fore. Teachers must be free to choose the pedagogical approach that most suits each situation, taking into consideration the syllabus and their students' capabilities.

As the first of the articles ends: "Dr Rowe said results from the study did not mean that constructivist teaching methods were wrong. The approach had merit, but problems with student learning arose when constructivist activities preceded explicit teaching or replaced it."

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Three podcasts on, what I have learned

This is what I have done:
  • Created mp3 files on topics related to the IT curriculum;
  • Included musical interludes - radio program style;
  • Increased the length of the casts from 11 to 20 minutes;
  • Varied the bit rate from 128 Kpbs mono down to 56 Kpbs mono;
  • Prepared ideas in the form of bullet points and kept my speech unscripted.
This is what I have learned:
  • Keep the file size small - a 56 Kbps mono-channel is sufficient;
  • Use podcasts to introduce a topic, not for revision;
  • Keep it short - no longer than 10 minutes;
  • No need for so many musical breaks. If the cast is short, then just use music to tell the students that I am moving to another section;
  • Ask the students to answer questions or write an entry on an online forum.
  • Continue to speak in a conversational tone but stick to the planned examples.
If you have examples of your own, then please share them in the comments.

The national curriculum is a certainty

In a previous post, I reviewed the debate about the proposal for a national curriculum. Now it looks like it is a certainty. Kevin Rudd, the leader of the Labor opposition, would introduce a Prep - Year 12 national curriculum in Maths, English, the Sciences and Australian history. John Howard, the leader of the ruling Coalition (Liberal + National parties), wants a national curriculum in these subjects, but only at high school level.

As I noted earlier, I do not mind the idea at all. Any difference in the needs of students is unlikely to be a function of the state in which they live. However, the debate seems more political than educational and we may end up with a politically compromised system. How this will compare to what we currently have can only be determined once we see the new syllabi.

It is interesting that Victoria has rejected the Liberals' proposal for a national curriculum, saying that "one size will not fit all". When federal Labor surprised everyone by proposing essentially the same thing, Victoria welcomed it!

We will have a few years to bed down the Victorian Essential Learning Standards. Let's not get too comfortable. Watch for the early retirements in 2010!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

2007 election - the clever need not apply!

Last weekend, the Saturday Age carried an interesting op-ed under the title "Get smart, get beaten". The opinion piece articulated what many people have been saying: "the opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, will never be Prime Minister, he speaks too well!" My entry is not an endorsement of either John Howard or Kevin Rudd. It is a critique of this kind of thinking.

According to Jason Koutsoukis, the author of the article, Kevin Rudd is on the examination table. The government is trying to find the best way to attack him. He further suggests that the Prime Minister has begun playing the "he's too smug" card. "The trick for Rudd then, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat with a pointy-headed reputation, will be to disguise how smart he is and to prove he has the common touch.

This is not surprising at all to me. Colleagues of mine who are life-long Labor voters have been telling me that Kevin Rudd could not be Prime Minister. I said that it was good to have people like him come to the fore, regardless of the function he will hold in Parliament, because he was quite an exception in Canberra - he spoke polished English. They told me that I had unwittingly stumbled on his biggest hurdle.

Going back to John Koutsoukis, "Australians tend to be drawn to leaders who seem to be one of them. People like Bob Hawke or John Howard". This is another point of intersection between the op-ed and what my colleagues have told me. One of them, who is close to Labor party personalities, added that Bob Hawke took elocution lessons so as to sound more like a working man prior to contesting the union leadership and, subsequently, the prime ministership. "He spoke differently when he was at Oxford".

So, it seems that, as a society, we conspire against the eloquent. Sport elitism is essential to our national pride, academic elitism is anathema.
If you are reading this in the US and think that things are not very different in your country, let me point this out to you: your sports stars may well be idolised beyond your academics, but your sports stars speak really well. Our sports stars sound like your rap singers.

I think I am due for a positive post. There are lots of wonderful things about Australia, its people and education system (or, more correctly, systems). I just had a few negative news stories coming my way of late.

Till next time,
Elias.