Category Archives: education

Sebastian Thrun, MOOC skeptic

The founder of Udacity no longer thinks MOOCs are the answer, says this Fast Company article.  As for me, I’ve become more optimistic about MOOCs as I’ve talked to the people at Wisconsin who are doing them, and seen what they’ve put together.

Although Thrun initially positioned his company as “free to the world and accessible everywhere,” and aimed at “people in Africa, India, and China,” the reality is that the vast majority of people who sign up for this type of class already have bachelor’s degrees, according to Andrew Kelly, the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute. “The sort of simplistic suggestion that MOOCs are going to disrupt the entire education system is very premature,” he says.

I too was surprised to learn that most people who take Wisconsin’s MOOCs are 30 and up.  But that made me really happy! Right now we put a massive amount of effort into teaching things to people who are between 18 and 21, and after they leave the building, we’re done with them (except when we mail them a brochure asking for money.)  30-year-olds know a lot more about what they want to do and what they need to know than 18-year-olds do.  55-year-olds even more so, I’ll bet.  I hope we can make higher education a life-long deal.

Oh, also:

When Thrun says this, I nearly fall out of my chair. He is arguably the most famous scientist in the world

I feel like you have to be very deeply embedded in Silicon Valley culture to type this sentence.

 

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Wisconsin and the Common Core math standards

I have been inexcusably out of touch with the controvery in Wisconsin about the adoption of the Common Core state standards for mathematics.  I present without comment the text of a letter that’s circulating in support of the CCSSM, which I know has the support of many UW-Madison faculty members with kids in Wisconsin public schools.  All discussion (of CCSSM in general or the points made in this letter) very welcome.

(Related:  Ed Frenkel supports CCSSM in the Wall Street Journal.)

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To whom it may concern,

We the undersigned, faculty members in mathematics, science and engineering at institutions of higher education in Wisconsin, wish to state our strong support for Wisconsin’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM).  In particular, we want to emphasize the high level of mathematical rigor exemplified by these standards.  The following points seem to us to be important:

  • We know that what we have been doing in the past does not work.  Nationwide, over 40% of first-year college students require remedial coursework in either English or mathematics.[1] For many of these students, completing their remedial mathematics (that is to say, high school mathematics) requirement will be a significant challenge on their path to their chosen college degree.  The situation in Wisconsin mirrors the national one.  Over the University of Wisconsin system as a whole, 21.3% of all entering freshmen in the fall of 2009 required remedial education in mathematics.[2]  Over the Wisconsin Technical College System, the mathematics remediation figure is closer to 40%.[3]
  • The CCSSM set a high, but realistic, level of expectations for all students.  It is unrealistic, and unnecessary, to expect all students to master calculus (for example) in high school.  That would be the “one size fits all” approach that is often brought up as an argument against the Common Core.  Instead, the CCSSM attempts to identify a coherent set of mathematical topics of which it can be reasonably be said that they are essential for students’ future success in our increasingly technological and data-driven society.  “College and career ready,” yes, but also life and citizenship ready.
  • It is easy to point to a certain favorite topic and say that the Common Core delays discussion of that topic, or places it in a grade level higher than it has been taught previously.  It is also dangerous.  There is no merit in placing a topic at a grade level where students are unable to do more than repeat procedures without understanding or reasoning.  (One example would be the all-too-frequent expectation that students compute means and medians of sets of numbers, with no significant connection to context, and no discussion of when it would make sense to use one rather than the other.)  It is necessary to look at any set of standards as a coherent whole, and ask whether students who meet all expectations of the standards have been held to a sufficiently high level.
  • Any set of standards is a floor, not a ceiling.  Any local school district, school or individual teacher may set expectations beyond the standards, if they choose to do so.  There are certainly many students who will need more mathematics in high school than is required by the CCSSM: Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM)-intending students, or students who hope to attend an elite college or university, are two obvious groups.  These students should indeed take more mathematics, and opportunities should be made available for them to do so. The standards question, however, is whether all students should be required to learn more mathematics than is in the CCSSM; our answer is “no.”
  • Even for talented students, the rush to learn advanced topics and procedures should not come at the expense of students’ deeper understanding of the mathematical content being covered. Talented students also need quality guidance; they should not be rushed thoughtlessly for the sake of advancement.
  • There are undoubtedly some professional mathematicians, scientists and engineers who claim that the CCSSM are insufficiently rigorous; it is our understanding that they are a small minority.

We entreat you to keep Wisconsin in the group of States that are adopting the CCSSM.  We see the consequences of failed educational policies in our classrooms every day, and we only have the well being of our students in mind. The CCSSM is the right balance: already far higher than our previous State standards but not beyond what one can expect from a majority of students.

 


[1] Beyond the Rhetoric: Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy, accessed from http://www.highereducation.org/reports/college_readiness/gap.shtml on October 3, 2013.

[2] Report on Remedial Education in the UW System: Demographics, Remedial Completion, Retention and Graduation, September 2009, accessed from http://www.uwsa.edu/opar/reports/remediation.pdf on October 6, 2013.

[3] Findings of the Underprepared Learners Workgroup, accessed from http://systemattic.wtcsystem.edu/system_initiatives/prepared_learners/Findings.pdf on October 6, 2013.

We get math kids

And one more thing:  surely the lexical ambiguity in “We get math kids”™ is intentional?  Of course it colloquially means “We understand.”  But also “We acquire.”  What do they do with the math kids, once they’ve got them?  To me it comes off as slightly menacing.  That part presumably not intentional.  “It’s a cookbook!”

 

On the other hand, there are schools just for music kids

Re Proof School:  I have no problem with Julliard or the Fame school, nor do I object to those schools carving out a category of “young performer” and saying “these kids, not anyone else, is who this school is really for.”  Is there really a difference?

I guess that in my heart I don’t believe math is much like music.  I don’t think you have to give yourself wholly to it as a child in order to make meaningful contributions as an adult.  (Is music even actually like that?  All I know about it is from watching Fame.)  I like it about US math education as opposed to Europe that, even in college, our math majors take all kinds of courses, spending maybe a quarter or a third of their time on math.  As far as I can see, this doesn’t hurt them in grad school.

Another thought:  I have made a couple of visits Canada/USA MathCamp, the amazing summer program Mira Bernstein founded — the intensity of feeling and learning there is really quite remarkable, and I’d send my kids there in a heartbeat if they wanted to go (and if they could pass the qualifying quiz!)  I love it — but I never once felt “I wish this could be all year round!”  The short span is what makes the fire so hot.

But then again, I went to a high school I really loved, where I learned a ton (albeit nothing about mathematics.)  If I’d gone to a mediocre school where I didn’t have anybody to talk to, I probably would have wanted to go to MathCamp year round.

Apparently this is “small tribal communities I’m clearly part of but whose separation from the rest of humanity I’m very ambivalent about” week on Quomodocumque.

Ought there be a school just for math kids?

Proof School is a proposed San Francisco middle/high school (grades 7-12) which proposes to do three hours of higher math a day.

“THERE OUGHT TO BE A SCHOOL JUST FOR MATH KIDS,” WE SAID. “BUT THERE ISN’T ONE.”

THEN WE ASKED, “WHY DON’T WE BUILD ONE?”

It seems certain this will be a great school, given that people like Ravi Vakil, Mira Bernstein and Richard Rusczyk are involved.

But I can’t help but be slightly put off by the presentation.  “We get math kids” is used as a kind of unifying slogan — in fact, it’s even trademarked!  (I hope my quoting it here does not require some form of license.)

I think it’s bad for us to carve out “math kid” as a kind of kid, separate from all others.  I think there ought to be an amazing school like the one Ravi and friends are building, but I don’t think it ought to be “just for math kids.”

 

 

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Learn to be a crappy programmer

“If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well” is a nice old saying, but is it true?  Cathy’s advice column today reminded me of this question, as regards coding.  I think learning to write good code is quite hard.  On the other hand, learning to write fairly crappy yet functional code is drastically less hard.  Drastically less hard and incredibly useful!  For many people, it’s probably the optimal point on the reward/expenditure curve.

It feels somehow wrong to give advice like “Learn to be a crappy programmer” but I think it might actually be good advice.

 

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Statistical chutzpah in the Indiana school grade-changing scandal

I wrote a piece for Slate yesterday about Tony Bennett, the former Indiana schools czar who intervened in the state’s school-grading system to ensure that a politically connected public charter got an A instead of a C.  (The AP’s Tom LoBianco broke the original story.)  Bennett offered interviewers an explanation for the last-minute grade change which was plainly contradicted by the figures in the internal e-mails LoBianco had obtained and released.  Presumably, Bennett figured nobody would bother to look at the actual numbers.  That is incredibly annoying.

Summary of what actually happened in Indiana, by analogy:

Suppose the syllabus for my math class said that the final grade would be determined by averaging the homework grade and the exam grade, and that the exam grade was itself the average of the grades on the three tests I gave. Now imagine a student gets a B on the homework, gets a D-minus on the first two tests, and misses the third. She then comes to me and says, “Professor, your syllabus says the exam component of the grade is the average of my grade on the three tests—but I only took twotests, so that line of the syllabus doesn’t apply to my special case, and the only fair thing is to drop the entire exam component and give me a B for the course.”

I would laugh her out of the office. Or maybe suggest that she apply for a job as a state superintendent of instruction.

 

 

 

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Things I don’t know how to do: orient myself in space

The New York Times recently covered the latest paper from the Benbow-Lubinski group at Vanderbilt about factors measurable in youth that correlate with adult achievement.  I always enjoy reading these studies because, as a person who scored well on the math SAT at a young age, I’m in their dataset somewhere.

The new paper finds a small but detectable (positive) effect of spatial ability in children on adult measures like patents granted and papers published in STEM.  I hope I didn’t mess up their z-score too badly, because I stink at spatial ability.  I recently revealed to Dr. Mrs. Q., who was horrified, that when we’re inside the house I can’t tell what direction the wall I’m facing corresponds to in the outside world.  Moreover, if I’m on the ground floor, I can’t tell you what’s directly above me on the top floor, or directly below me in the basement.  This is presumably related to my inability to correctly swipe a credit card at the gas pump.

Interesting fact about spatial ability:  it can be trained by sufficient exposure to first-person shooters.

As for the new paper (full author list: Kell, Lubinski, Benbow, and Steiger) I have some quarrels with it.  Their way of measuring “creativity and innovation” is to split the subjects into

  • those who have obtained a patent but have not published a paper
  • those who have published a paper in natural science, math, or engineering (aka STEM)
  • those who have published a paper in biology in medicine
  • those who have publications in the arts, law, the humanities, or social science
  • everybody else

I think the binary variable “has published a paper in science” vs. “has not published a paper in science” is a pretty bad proxy for creativity.  It is a much better proxy for “pursued an academic career for at least some point in their life.”

What’s more:  from the New York Times lede

A gift for spatial reasoning — the kind that may inspire an imaginative child to dismantle a clock or the family refrigerator — may be a greater predictor of future creativity or innovation than math or verbal skills, particularly in math, science and related fields, according to a study published Monday in the journal Psychological Science.

you might think having high spatial ability is good for creativity.  But the results are more complicated than that.  People who’d published at least one STEM paper had higher spatial reasoning scores than those who didn’t.  But people with an artistic, literary, legal, or social-scientific publication had lower spatial reasoning scores than the mean.  What the Times ought to have said is that spatial reasoning may have an effect on what kind of creative tasks a kid grows up to undertake.

 

Interview with DeMarco and Wilkinson

Nice joint interview with Laura DeMarco and Amie Wilkerson at Scientific American.

I didn’t know this about Amie:

 I went to college, and I was feeling very insecure about my abilities in mathematics, and I hadn’t gotten a lot of encouragement, and I wasn’t really sure this was what I wanted to do, so I didn’t apply to grad school. I came back home to Chicago, and I got a job as an actuary. I enjoyed my work, but I started to feel like there was a hole in my existence. There was something missing. I realized that suddenly my universe had become finite. Anything I had to learn for this job, I could learn eventually. I could easily see the limits of this job, and I realized that with math there were so many things I could imagine that I would never know. That’s why I wanted to go back and do math.

This was basically me, too.  After college I got into the fiction writing program at Johns Hopkins, which made me think maybe I could really make it as a writer, and I deferred grad school and moved to Baltimore and wrote fiction all day every day for a year, and while I valued that experience a lot, there was not a single day of it where I didn’t kind of wish I were doing math.  Having had that experience — not just suspecting but knowing how annoying it is not to be doing math — took the edge off the pain of the painful parts of grad school.

Encouraging!

The introduction to the textbook States of Matter, by David L. Goodstein:

Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand.  Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933.  Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics.

 

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