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Teaching Science and Math with Real World Examples

I ran across a great post at Technocrat titled If We Taught English the Way We Teach Mathematics.
"Suppose that those classes, from elementary school right through to high school, amounted to nothing more than reading dictionaries, getting drilled in spelling and formal grammatical construction, and memorizing vast vocabulary lists -- you never read a novel, nor a poem; never had contact with anything beyond the pedantic complexity of English spelling and formal grammar, and precise definitions for an endless array of words. You would probably hate the subject."
This is a great point, and the post goes on to talk about why it's not just a lack of "real world" examples that makes math and science such boring, intimidating subjects.  Here's the perfect example of how a real world example definitely did not help one student with physics: [youtube]cIIwwCi2zwk[/youtube] So if memorizing facts and formulas is no use, and contrived, often bizarre examples are no help, how should we teach math and science? I'm not sure I have any great insights, but I can give you three examples of what has worked for me. First, I think it helps to have (or to project to your students) an attitude that allows for the real value and usefulness of science and math.  This does not mean that great teachers and students have to be died-in-the-wool atheists or materialists.  But I do think there are some basic ideas without which science and math will never be meaningful or interesting: 1.  The world is more complicated than it might seem; 2.  We can figure out the way it works; 3.  We can put the knowledge to use. As Richard Feynman explained:
"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
Doing some googling to uncover the source of the quote leads me to a post on Edward Tufte's homepage, Grand truths about human behavior.  There you'll find a collection of quotes that express this notion better than I can. Second, you cannot study physics, geometry, biology, or any similar subject in isolation.  When I was in high school a lot of the stuff we went over in math class junior year didn't make sense until I took physics senior year.  In college I took calculus I and II as a computer science student and did fairly well, but I forgot everything I had read the day after each final exam.  When I took discrete math, though, the class was so much more interesting because I could see how it applied to CS. Physics od SuperherosFinally, one great way to teach science is through storytelling.  This is a case where extensive Bible study might be perfect preparation for giving a science lecture - Jesus knew 2000 years ago that parables were much more effective teaching tools than lists of facts and figures (or commandments). The facts of the story are not nearly as important as the lesson and the exercise in creative thinking.  One great example of this is The Physics of Superheros by James Kakalios.  This is a great book - the author talks about the origin stories and powers of various super heroes and uses these very fictional examples to illustrate real physics.  He does not do so by brutally criticizing Stan Lee and insulting Superman.  Instead he uses the "miracle exception" to the laws of physics represented by each super power to tell a story about how the world really works. Thanks to The Adventures of the Accordion Guy for pointing out the post on teaching math like English.

Reforming American Education: Further Thoughts

I recently wrote a glib, throwaway post on Five Quick Steps for reforming education. While the list was made partially in humor, it has sparked a substantive debate and I would like to wade in with more detailed thoughts. 1. We should not overly federalize education. The federal government, bastion of bloat and incompetence, cannot address education issues as well as the various States. The federal government is crucial for legislating on issues that are national or interstate, such as environmental regulations. That is where they are most useful. Education is primarily a local issue. Therefore, it is more appropriate for the States to control education, since they would be able to craft solutions that address the specific needs of failing schools. While one school district may have crumbling infrastructure that needs to be addressed, another may have a teacher shortage. The federal government does not have the time nor the energy to address such specific issues and their attempts at reform, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, have been deleterious rather than ameliorative. 2. The teacher's union has a stranglehold on the school system. In New York, it is so difficult and costly to remove a teacher, even when there is proof that they have sexually solicited a student, that the school system created something called Rubber Rooms. These are rooms where teachers that are clearly unfit to teach are placed during the day, away from children, while still receiving their salaries. This is a grotesque situation, but we cannot blame the administrators because they are behold to an overly powerful union. Teachers have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and suppressing any sort of educational innovation that may threaten their jobs. The countervailing interest of making sure children have good educations does not act as a counterweight, because the teacher's union is abnormally strong. As long as the union remains in its present form, any true educational experiment will be strangled in the cradle and go the way of GM. 3. Instituting a voucher system will give power and choice to parents and the resultant market pressures will force schools to adapt. In my earlier post, I implied that all government controlled schooling should be eradicated. While I still think this would be better than the current regime, I realize that it is politically infeasible. A compromise could be to incentivize the creation of nonprofits, for-profits, parochial, and other types of schools to exist along side public schools. This is already the case, as with the maligned charter schools, but there is no real competition available and voucher systems are hampered either legally or through delibertae misinformation spread by teachers' unions. I can imagine an educational landscape with a multitude of various types of schools, each competing for children. This would destroy the socializing function of public schooling, which inculcates a shared intellectual and social baseline across the union. I believe this to be a good thing, as independent thinkers are more important to me than uniform citizenry. A thousand schools booming, combined with a true voucher system, would enable parents to decide what type of schools are best for their children and the brutal market will weed out the institutions that are not performing. Here, the federal government could play a role by subsidizing the voucher system, either directly with grants or through the States with subsidies. This would be preferable over current federal attempt to control schooling, like the execrable No Child Left Behind Act. Jason expressed concern about information asymmetry in the educational market. I don't believe this is a real concern. Parent's that care about their child's education will do the research to utilize their voucher. Parent's that don't care, just don't care and wouldn't do anything anyway. But even in the latter case, a rising ride raises all ships, so the disinterested parent's child would still be benefited. Perhaps we can resurrect the Department of Education and turn it into something similar to the GAO. It can require, oversee, and audit extensive disclosure from every school, like the SEC does with public companies. This would create a database of reliable and current information about schools, enabling parent's to make educated choices. Either the government or nonprofits could then disseminate the information in easily digestible portions for parents who do not want to take the time to comb the raw data. 4. Start slow using limited geographic areas to make sure that reforms are working. I agree wholeheartedly with Jason that the key to any reform is start slow and utilize the scientific method. One benefit of devoving control over education to the States is that it creates 50 little laboratories in which we can observe how various changes affect schools. The corollary to this is that we need to buckle down for the long haul. Like with health care, there is not a simple or quick solutions. The fate of America rests with each new generation and their contributions to society. An educated and scientifically-literate population keeps America competitive with the rest of the world. An uneducated and superstitious population signals the waning of American and our quality of life. It is worth laborious, expensive, and time-consuming efforts to ensure that we create the former, rather than the latter. There are some curricula reforms I would like to see and some legislation I would like to see repealed as well, but we will save that for a future post. NOTE: I've edited this post for clarity and completeness.

No Easy Answers – 5 Slow, Difficult Steps for Reforming Education

Todd started the discussion with his post about reforming education in America and Tracy added her two cents. Tracy agreed with me about the less-than-impressive track record of charter schools, but both thought market-style competition were the solution.

I disagree that bringing up charter school problems is a pot shot, since charter schools are exactly what many reformers and proponents of privatizing public education want. My main point is not that I think privatization is morally wrong or doomed to failure, but that we should take a more scientific approach to charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of privatization.

Here are five slow, difficult steps for reforming education in America.

1) We should try more than one alternative model. A lot of people are big on for-profit companies running schools with public money—why not non-profit organizations instead? We have some evidence it works, since many private schools and colleges are non-profits. Looking at colleges, the non-profit model has apparently been more successful than the for-profit one. Why don't we try just privatizing some aspects of school systems, like facilities? Many large corporations outsource their maintenance work. How many advocates for “choice� and “freedom� are willing to try charter schools run directly by teacher's unions?

2) We should make reforms systematically such that results can be compared in some meaningful way. If we privatize the cafeteria in a middle-class suburb and costs go down, we cannot conclude that private charter schools will be effective and save taxpayers money. If we have a successful charter school in a wealthy suburb we cannot conclude the same model will work in the inner city. We need to be able to get comparable metrics in order to make comparisons.

3) When trying to reform school systems, raise test scores, or otherwise improve education, we should base our attempts on some kind of actual research, not just ideology. For example, are we even reforming in the right place? Let's see a cost/benefit analysis - where can changes make the largest difference? Programs like Raising a Reader and First Book have followed the numbers pointing to early childhood literacy intervention. From this FastCompnay profile of JumpStart:

By kindergarten, on average, a child from a middle-income background has received up to 1,700 hours of one-to-one reading time while a child from a low-income background has received only 25. As a result, at first grade, the middle income child will have a vocabulary that is four times greater than his low-income peers. Since a child's knowledge of the alphabet in kindergarten is the strongest predictor of reading ability in 10 grade, this discrepancy is telling.

4) We should learn some lessons from the current experiments with charter schools and other approaches and do better. I think it might be worth looking into increasing oversight of these schools and investigating the role political connections and campaign contributions play in how contracts are awarded. There's strong evidence that charter schools affiliated with a district are much better than completely independent schools. This is not just about finding bad news. What are some school doing right?

5) More pizza parties. I'm only half kidding here. How often have we heard that “throwing money at the problem� isn't a solution? Granted I haven't done a lot of research, but I don't think there have been many cases where too much money was given to a school system. Let's add this to our list of alternatives to try: spending a ton of money on a poor school district to improve the building, the materials, the library, the competitiveness of teacher salaries, the nutrition of the food, the before- and after-school programs and activities, etc.

My Two Cents: Reforming Education in America

Read Tod's post and Jason's comment before you read this, please. Jason, your complaint is not unique to schooling. Any time marketing exists it exists in a world in which consumer is not educated; in fact, they are counting on it. Thus we have things like McDonald's. At the same time market pressure is the most responsive and pliable type of reform initiative. For instance, for the exactly two point three seconds that everyone remembered (a la non-research based docu-drivel) just how disgusting McDonald's food really is they drastically changed their menus. That was nation-wide; hundreds of thousands of store almost over night all because of a little market pressure. Show me a neighborhood that has any consumer educated enough to make a "rational" decision about what to friggin eat for lunch and I'll show the Garden of Freaking Eden. Jason took a pot shot at charter schools and it's true that as a class they suck. However, it has been proven, in economics and biology that without competetion weakness sets in. Charter schools provide much needed competition to bolster the otherwise festering public schools. If you don't believe me, just take a close look at the Dayton Public School system. They aren't perfect, far from it, and many of the charter schools around are just downright scary; but DPS has improved leaps and bounds since the rise of charter schools in the area. The truth is, the only good thing this country has as a true instrument of change in capitalism, capitalism, capitalism. If that means that some kids end up at the McDonald's of education I'm all for it. Because I gotta tell you, as a former insider on both sides of the desk, the system we've got right now is deeply infected and is suffering. It could be that a hard shot of consumer choice would be enough to shock it into health and I'm inclinded to believe it.

Five Quick Steps for Reforming Education in America

1. Blow up the Department of Education. 2. Eradicate the teachers' unions by hiring Pinkertons. 3. Abolish government control over running schools and place most of the governance and day-to-day operations in private hands. 4. Create a comprehensive school choice voucher system funded by the States. 5. More pizza parties.