Bad at Math = Teh Suck

Chad Orzel and Neil DeGrasse Tyson nail something ridiculously important. (Watch the whole clip, and definitely read Orzel’s old post)?:

A great clip from his World Science Festival appearance the other night, especially the bit toward the end:

“One thing I think that as a nation we should be embarrassed by is that the scientists– you can do this experiment yourself, I’ve done the experiment– the scientists, by and large, know more liberal arts than the science that is known by liberal artists.”

Or you can read my longer, less funny version from a couple of years ago. Either way, it’s an important message: It should be exactly as embarrassing in educated company to say “I’m no good at math” as it would be to say “I’m no good at reading.” The fact that it isn’t– that it’s ok to laugh off innumeracy– is a major problem for us as a society.

Read the comments on this post…

This is actually a point I had never really thought about, and even I’m guilty of it. Of course in my family the line was closer to, “Oh, I could do any Algebra or Trig, but hit the wall at Calculus.” And of course, my family is an odd duck. I’m going to go ahead and claim I am not one of those liberal artsy folks who chuckle about being bad at math. But I’ve never called anyone out for laughing at being bad at math. Maybe it didn’t come up as much, because I grew up within music circles and music and math have a very strong relationship.

Back to their point: Orzel and Tyson are precisely right. Math should be a function like literacy. And it’s not even complex math. Arithmetic and basic Algebra should be proudly ingrained in all American brains. We don’t all need to be calculators. My wife regularly comments about how quickly I can multiply through things, but I attribute that to being quickly able to tear down problems (23 x 5 is actually (20×5)+(3×5) in my head) and having being the loot roller for more Dungeons & Dragons games than anyone else I know.

These guys don’t expect that either. They expect that it doesn’t matter what speed you can figure out a problem, they care that you can figure out the problem at all. Tyson properly goes into this with science as well. Organic Chemistry? Nuts to that. Asking how exactly something works, where it comes from, what are its limitations? Reasonable. Even if you can’t understand the specifics, you should at least be able to cut through the bullshit and see if the claim someone is making could actually be valid.

Actually, that ties into what I try to explain to my son. He’s following what advertisements are and it’s easy to see him get tripped up. He’s a knowledge hound, a precise knowledge hound, and I love him endlessly for it. So when some commercial makes a claim that its product does some amazing feat, I have to methodically walk him back and explain that ads, while not fully lying (usually), are shiny exaggerations of what something is actually capable of.

My favorite example: a box of Kix cereal. Right on the front, it claims to be a good source of Calcium and Vitamin D. Know what milk is chock-full of? Calcium and Vitamin D. So what does the Kix give you? Briefly crunchy filler. And yes, it tastes good and is easy to snack on so we still give it to the kids anyway.

To wrap up, I again agree: if someone makes the claim of being ‘bad at math’ and proud of it, remind them that it’s not okay to be illiterate in the basics of our civilization. We depend on it. I know I’m not touching on the fact math is probably not taught in the ways to reach all learners, but that’s a separate fault. I am sick of people being proud of being ignorant.

My dad is a brilliant man, double mastered in science and engineering. Knows something about everything. He’s why I’m abnormally adept at so much. But he’s a bad speller. He got screwed by an experimental method of teaching phonetics when he was a kid. He’s not proud, it’s just something he has to cope with. Doesn’t mean he can’t string a clear paragraph together or talk to someone about music or literature. So even if you’re bad at math, that’s no excuse for not being able to calculate my change at a coffee shop.

More Work For History

Following up on my post about the Texas Board of Education, the Texas Freedom Network is live-blogging the board’s social studies debate.

9:27 – The board is taking up remaining amendments on the high school world history course.

9:30 – Board member Cynthia Dunbar wants to change a standard having students study the impact of Enlightenment ideas on political revolutions from 1750 to the present. She wants to drop the reference to Enlightenment ideas (replacing with “the writings of”) and to Thomas Jefferson. She adds Thomas Aquinas and others. Jefferson’s ideas, she argues, were based on other political philosophers listed in the standards. We don’t buy her argument at all. Board member Bob Craig of Lubbock points out that the curriculum writers clearly wanted to students to study Enlightenment ideas and Jefferson. Could Dunbar’s problem be that Jefferson was a Deist? The board approves the amendment, taking Thomas Jefferson OUT of the world history standards.

9:40 – We’re just picking ourselves up off the floor. The board’s far-right faction has spent months now proclaiming the importance of emphasizing America’s exceptionalism in social studies classrooms. But today they voted to remove one of the greatest of America’s Founders, Thomas Jefferson, from a standard about the influence of great political philosophers on political revolutions from 1750 to today.

9:45 – Here’s the amendment Dunbar changed: “explain the impact of Enlightenment ideas from John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present.” Here’s Dunbar’s replacement standard, which passed: “explain the impact of the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Sir William Blackstone.” Not only does Dunbar’s amendment completely change the thrust of the standard. It also appalling drops one of the most influential political philosophers in American history — Thomas Jefferson.

9:51 – Dunbar’s amendment striking Jefferson passed with the votes of the board’s far-right members and board member Geraldine “Tincy” Miller of Dallas.

9:56 – Here is what the Library of Congress says about Jefferson’s influence: “Recognized in Europe as the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson quickly became a focal point or lightning rod for revolutionaries in Europe and the Americas.” The Library of Congress notes, in particular, Jefferson’s influence on revolutionaries in France (including on the Declaration of the Rights of Man), other European nations, South America and Haiti.

(Found via The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan.)

Teach To The Test

For all of you fun-loving education cynics out there:

Best Book Awards for Teaching to the Test

The Roots and Stems Award: Throw away your dictionary and consider using the SAT vocabulary lists as your guide. The more obscure words you use in your book, the better. After all, words like “iconoclast” and “venerable” are hard to find in context at school.

The Venn Award: Can students compare and contrast the characters in your book using a graphic organizer? Will your plot fit nicely on a pyramid? If my students can record everything they need to remember about your book onto one worksheet, you are a frontrunner for this award.

The Field Trip Award: Can I use your book to show my students what a zoo, museum, or concert hall really looks like? How about recess? With budget cuts and a focus on standards-based curriculum, the only way my students might have these experiences is if you write about them.

The Marginalia Award: If my students can write reams of annotation while reading your book, this is the award for you. Talk to your publisher and ask them to widen the margins. Two inches–the width of a small Post-It note– would be best.

The Diorama Award: Open House is just around the corner, and I need something to hang on the walls. Besides, knowing that a project is due is the only thing that motivates my students to read. Does your book lend itself to a wanted poster, cereal box, or paper bag report? If I can integrate technology by assigning a power point project, I will use your book every year. Since all we do in class is drill on test-taking skills, students will have to complete this project at home. Consider including instructions for parents.

(Found via Stop Homework.)

Learn From My Mistakes…

When people ask me what I’m up to for the weekend, my usual reply is, “Hopefully nothing.” No matter what, things always seem to pop up, be it shopping, chores, family event, someone getting sick, etc. So yes, I do hope not to have anything to do on any given weekend.
Driving from work with the lad, going to pick up the lass, my car stops. It just dies in the middle of the road. I lost power somewhere, but it’s odd. I can’t run the wipers, but the lights and radio are still on. In fact, I cannot even shift it into neutral in order to roll it off the side of the road. Luckily I wasn’t on the highway, but still somewhat scary with my boy in the car.

I’m just a block from a Toyota dealership, so I take the boy out of the car and walk him to the dealership, all while calling my father-in-law, the avid mechanic, to figure out how to at least get it into neutral and off the road. The lad is great the whole time, and I just plopped him in a big, cushy chair and had him stay put.

So as I’m heading back to the car, I see a cop pull up behind it. This is also while I was trying again to call my wife at work to let her know to head home to pick up the lass (who I was so very thankful was still playing at daycare rather than being a part of this situation). Barely realizing that my phone had picked up her voicemail, I’m running down the street trying to wave down the cop hopefully before he could call in a tow truck and a huge fine.

Luckily, I got advice from the FIL about the trick to manually release the shifter. So the cop, very kindly, pushed me down the road to the Toyota dealership. The FIL showed up a half hour later to hobble my car back together in order to get it into his garage.

What the issue was: one of the terminals on my battery had completely corroded the ground wire, disconnecting some but not all of my electronics, most notably the stuff heading to the engine. This would have been avoided ages ago had my car not had a bloody battery cover.

Before this car, I’d driven two pansy, early-nineties Corollas. Both had the same engine (or nearly), and had about 6 parts to them that could be all seen at a quick glance. So when I would regularly check my fluids and whatnot, I could see plain as day that there was a battery still in the car. A battery I’d jump-started many-a-times too (the cars didn’t beep when leaving the lights on upon exit; they were simple).

But now, nope. Big black cover my brain just ignores. So on the negative terminal there was a brilliant blue foam of battery acid built up that ate away the wire. Very, very thankfully it was a quick fix once in the garage and all is as good as new. Still, so much for an uneventful weekend. At least the lad got to spend the night at his cousin’s.

Moral of the story: just look at your battery when you check your oil and tires.

Second moral: When my car died, I had no idea whom to call. It didn’t seem like a 911 issue. Yet I was stuck in the road, not just pulled over and not working, so it was of more immediate importance to . So my next stop will be to pay the annual AAA fee and get that nifty little white card.

Processing Words…

Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to proffer a technique to teach young students to type up papers. My method is an alternative to the standard in which students open up a massive word processor. From there, they have all the bells and whistles to clang and blow that are built into the program with which to screw up their document before they even type their name.

Basically, unless there is some dedicated, direct instruction with constant scrutiny, the space for error is great. And even with all the that monitoring that is so easy to pull off in a room of 30 kids, all the ever-present and easy to access features are going to get accidentally clicked on anyway.

So the method I propose is a way of operating similar to that of web development: content and formatting are separate.

To begin typing a formal document, I would open up a basic text editor. Notepad on Windows or TextEdit on Mac would be fine. Be sure the settings are for plain text, not rich text (not sure about Windows, but on Macs, you do have to go in and change the default preferences). We have no interest in fonts, alignments, spacing, or anything else. The point is to get the information clearly written.

Student could go ahead and put in a little header on the first couple of lines:

First A. Lastname





Lorem ipsum…

Note, everything is just sitting on the left margin. Not a big deal. Information is key.

So the extent of the paper is done. The student has their document.txt file sitting in their folder, nicely saved and ready for the next step. This next step also teaches some basic computer operations that are absolutely essential to know: switching between programs and copy/paste functions.

This also becomes a chance to teach clicking and dragging and highlighting goodness. If they are advanced enough, I would toss in keyboard shortcuts. In this case, we start off easy: highlight all your text, then go to the Edit menu and select Copy.

Now the students, with their plain text files staring at them, will go down and start up the full-featured word processor. Once a blank document is ready, paste in the text. Save your newly minted document to be the same name as previous, our new document.docx (if that’s your format).

Students can see the original text file and the full document file right next to each other in the folder, very good for organizational purposes, plus it is a built-in backup. Also, if your students blow up their formatting, there’s original plain text to try again with.

From in this new document, students can work on highlighting specific sections to change justification, font size, type, spacing, etc, as well as checking grammar and usage. The point is that all these things happen last in the process so the actual document gets written in the first place.

It’s just a wonderful bonus that file management, computer usage, and basic editing techniques are also included in such a lesson. I’m going to propose this to some of the English teachers I work with and get their opinions.

Any pros/cons out there that could raise or ruin this idea?

PS, I would also just mention here that I firmly believe that a first draft should be written by hand. Then typing it up becomes a clear editing stage when typing it up. But if not doing that, clean plain text is the way to go after that.

My Attention Span…

The lack of posting here is due to tremendous increases in school, life, and work. All should be well in about 2 weeks. Hopefully.
Anyway, here is a response to some articles by Marc Prensky that were required for class.

Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants

I came away with reservations about these articles (parts I and II). At first shake, Prensky’s arguments make sense. After some time sitting and putting some thought into it, I would be inclined to disagree with him.

Let me say that I seem like a Digital Native, but it mostly due to growing up with an interest in technology, not having been born into that world. The articles were written in 2001, when I graduated from high school. I still have recollections of VCRs and phones cords. Computers were monochrome beasts with no hard drives. I stride the bridge between the Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.

Real Digital Natives are not ones who just grow up playing video games; I grew up playing video games. Digital Natives would be those who have no recollection of a world without instant and constant information in their pockets: the Wireless Generation. These students we will teach have had personal cell phones since elementary school.

So there’s my first issue with Prensky. It’s not a gaming generation that makes a difference. It is ubiquitous information. Still, why do kids get into video games? They entertain. It’s a new genre of entertainment alongside the popular novel, movies, and television. While trying to turn an entertainment source into an educational source is a noble endeavor, it is ultimately a futile one.

Why do kids (and adults) spend so much time trying to master skills for a video game? Games link the worlds of entertainment and hobbies. Fixing cars, learning chess, fishing, all are skills that people acquire not to get smarter, but for fun. Those skills still sit outside the educational world, and I’m glad for it.

Attention spans seem shot? Of course they are. Kids are used to fast-paced imagery passing before them. Objectively watching TV, especially advertisements, reveals a bombardment on the senses. One doesn’t need to have deep thinking and processing to play or watch most things. That’s fine; it’s what entertainment is for. Still, that doesn’t forgive schools for being dry and presenting content coldly.

The bigger issue is not attention span, it is concentration. On the surface, they look similar. Deeper, they are different. One is sensorial focus, the other is a duration of cognition. Sure kids could play games or watch TV for hours on end, but they aren’t concentrating on them. To shallowly understand an image, people need to see it for a mere 3 seconds. TV and video games are geared toward that.

The other issue is a myth kids are especially good at perpetuating: humans are capable of multitasking. Supposedly they can watch TV, check websites, instant message or text people, all while writing a paper. It is false. I regularly read articles by heavy internet and computer users on how the best way to work on a task is by disconnecting themselves from the digital world.

I will also vouch for this as well. For the first half of my undergrad years, I had a TV in my room next to my computer. For some reason, I struggled to finish papers on time and get practicing done (I was a music major). As soon as I got rid of my television and isolated my practice and reading time, I found I could actually read more than a paragraph at a time and I got good marks in my private music instruction. I was amazed and wound up raising my class rankings by being able to concentrate again.

Prensky also brings up how students will attack problems non-linearly. They’ll analyze multiple points and try lots of little things without thinking heavily. Sure they get to the answer, but without a secure process to get there. Supposedly, that’s just the way young people think now. No, these are children of instant gratification. If there’s not an instant solution, try something else. Again, here’s the concentration factor.

My son does this regularly. He’s very bright for his age so most things come very easily. When something is a challenge or produces a failure the first couple of tries, he gives up, claiming not to like it, and moves on. This isn’t a healthy way to approach the world. You can’t expect to be entertained or be instantly gratified at every encounter.

I still fight this old habit as well. My inclination is to entertain myself before doing work. I have to force myself to get work done before rewarding myself. Often, that means I end my day without having a reward at all. But such is life, and that is not a bad thing to educate kids about.

Long-arms Lecture…

So while walking to school this morning, the boy asked me, “How do we kill birds?”
Now, my son isn’t vindictive toward our fine avian friends, he just knows that we as omnivorous mammals, meat must be killed prior to ingestion. Plus, my friend and I were talking about spotting birds (I had apparently seen a crane in flight while I was driving last night), so the whole thing isn’t entirely out of context.

I started by explaining that we have farms that raise chickens and turkeys for eating. The lad said he knew (I’ve explained it before), but how to we kill birds in the sky?

Well here we go. My son, being a five year old, has already seen and pretended to use many different weapons. Most of them have been blasters or phasers from science fiction, and I’m fine with that. But still I refuse to deny him knowledge of most things that he would find out anyway and would rather he know them properly.

I started with the fact there are handguns/pistols, and there are long-arms. That’s an easy enough place to differentiate small guns from big guns. So we’re talking about hunting, and unless you’re a friend of my dad’s, you hunt with a long-arm.

In long-arms, you can then break down into groups shotguns, rifles, and assault rifles. Assault rifles are used by soldiers in battle. That’s the only place they’re needed. Easy enough to understand.

Rifles, next, are used to hunt bigger animals like deer and wild pigs. They shoot a single big bullet in one spot. That’s what you need to take down larger animals.

So with smaller animals like birds, you need a smaller bullet. That’s when you use shotguns. Shotguns don’t fire one big bullet, they fire a bunch of little bullets over an area. So that’s what you take with you when you, for example, go out into a swamp and hunt ducks.

What about moose, dad? Can you hunt moose?

Sure you can. What do you want to use to hunt a big moose? Something that shoots a big bullet or little bullets?

A rifle.

That’s right, good job. Glad it makes some sense.

We continue walking.

Dad, look at this picture I drew. That’s the sun, that’s Earth, that’s Jupiter, and, uh, what other planets are there?

Lesson learned. I have no qualms with my children knowing about life and death, particularly since they’re so intertwined. I wouldn’t mind showing him how the different weapons work next time we’re visiting Granddad and checking out his collection of vintage toys.

Addendum: Since I have an inquisitive mind, I went ahead and Googled long-arms. Nothing. Apparently I’ve been using the wrong term for years. According to Wikipedia, the terms are long guns and short guns. I probably got mixed up with the fact that my mum has used long-arm quilting machines for years. Glad I didn’t bring up that fact and confound the boy further.