Saturday, September 28, 2013

Dispelling our misconceptions about learning, in order to teach and learn better

We know less about learning than we think, and there is something we can do about it, but first we have to see it for ourselves, in order to believe it. On the daily bulletin of a MOOC I am taking about Mathematical Thinking, was this article on "Improving Classroom Performance by Challenging Student Misconceptions About Learning" by Stephen L. Chow, which calls for applying known insights from the field of psychology, to the problems of metacognition and learning efficiency. We all know less than we think we do, and our misconceptions about the learning process can harm our learning efficiency.

That "Many students arrive at college with highly overlearned study skills developed in high school that are now ineffective" implies that what it takes to be successful in the K-12 educational institutions, is at cross-purposes with deep learning. However, so long as schools increasingly require teaching to the test, the skills for success at public school, will not be sufficient for college-level work. Debate and discussion of this problem is so commonplace that it has practically become a trope, with attackers and defenders on all sides, so I will not belabor it further here, as my purpose is simply to present and partially describe an article on how to use what is known to the field of psychology, to improve learning (and potentially, teaching), by addressing common misconceptions about learning.

Notably, according to the author of the article, active learning is ineffective if it does not lead to deep processing. Teachers can benefit from this if they apply active learning to deep processing, but active learning that does not lead to deep processing will not be effective, according to the author, who recommends using formative assessment to improve metacognition and to give students practice in recalling and using information.

Anyone seeking to improve their own learning, or to support the learning of others (whether through being a tutor or mentor, educating their own children privately (with or without the use of school systems), or performing the job of teacher-for-pay within a school system, can benefit from this information.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

We've reached the two-week mark since enrolling my daughter in Time4Writing's 8-week "Extreme Paragraphs" course at the elementary level. She's at the last assignment of Week 5, which is well ahead of schedule, but the course went from easy, to challenging, just about now, and so I expect that her pace will slow as the difficulty increases. I think it benefits our homeschooling in that it jogs my memory about how to break down the teaching of writing, making me a better teacher even as it gives her a set of challenges from an external source.

So far, I can see benefits, and also some problems, with the mechanization of learning in this manner. Outsourcing to a private tutor is not an option for many families, but in any case, getting an 8-week course organized, graded, and run by someone else for $99 is a hard deal to beat. However, in approach and content, some of the sacrifices which are necessary in the name of automation, make this system compare very poorly to real one-on-one personal feedback, even the kind I recall from a teacher responsible for the whole class, in school. The teacher does respond promptly to any questions or concerns, though.

I'm not ready to make a full review, but am looking forward to seeing what we take away from this experience, ultimately.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Getting from spelling, to writing: an 8-week course!

By happy coincidence, we were offered an opportunity to try out a course in writing, to help my daughter bridge the gap between her previous work on spelling, punctuation and mechanics, and grammar, to fluent writing. Perusing the class offerings, I was undecided whether the class in sentence-writing, or the class in paragraph-writing, would be best. After consulting with the representative, we resolved to try paragraph writing first, and if that proves too difficult, move to sentence writing and work our way up.

Whichever turns out to be her proper placement, I am certain that this will be an enriching and challenging experience, and that she will grow in her abilities as a result.

For the next several weeks, we will be working on our writing skills at  This online writing program is designed to teach students how to write, focusing on writing structure and writing improvement.  Come back in a few weeks to see how we are progressing!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review of Time4Learning

We were pleased to have the chance to try Time4Learning free for 30 days in exchange for reviewing it here.

Time4Learning, so near as I could tell, is simply a service licensing access for subscribers, to Compass Learning Odyssey, a Common Core-aligned data collection and education content provider that services businesses and schools. If that is not correct, I welcome elaboration from Time4Learning on its relationship with Compass Learning.

Due to the age range of my kids, we were able to try both the Upper Level and Lower Level curricula.  At both levels, there was some flexibility to differentiate instruction, up to a full grade level higher or lower than the declared one, and that is a crucial feature when working with learners who exhibit asynchronous development.

My review ended up being ambivalent, and I found myself unable to wholly like, or wholly dislike, Time4Learning. Despite my kids' objections, I am still tempted to subscribe at least for a while and see if the benefits of automaticity outweigh the negatives, and perhaps my daughter's feelings about it might improve once she is used to the format and understands how to "play the game" of standardized test formats. The ability to navigate that despite divergent thinking might be useful.

In some ways the automated system too much resembled an automated telephone answering menu system.
Both kids found having to listen to their answer repeated each time, and then sit through an animated cheer/boo session depending on whether they got the right answers, tedious and annoying.

Both kids found the animated praise or blame based on getting it right or wrong, demotivating. The negative comments on getting things wrong were upsetting, and seemed like a put-down, and the praise for getting something right quickly started sounding hollow.

Test results as a goal and endpoint for learning, promotes superficiality. However, that problem is endemic to schools, and as a support for and supplement to school performance on that basis, Time4Learning ought to be successful. Its execution is mostly good, and people who have no problems with its architecture and philosophy will likely appreciate the animations of the Upper Level learning, and the fast-paced, entertainment-style lessons.

Accepting the basic architecture and philosophy, we move on to a few notable examples of glitches in the execution of it, which are easily addressable and fixable:

In the math section, my daughter was measuring 3-D objects with a virtual ruler. She called me over because an answer she was sure was right, was listed as wrong. The object in question was basically cylindrical, and I watched as she lined up the virtual ruler with the drawn front edge of the cylindrical object's base. She did not line the ruler up with the rear edge of the ellipse depicting the cylindrical base, because in a 3-D object, which this was a drawing of, that would make no sense. The only way the "correct" answer according to the program, would make sense, is if the intention were to measure the total length of a paper cutout or line drawing, without attempting to measure the object it represented. In other words, the way this particular problem worked, had it been a cube she had been measuring the width of, she would have needed to include the depicted rear lines as well, so would be measuring the hexagonal shadow of the cube depicted. Addressing this problem should be straightforward, and I hope will be resolved soon for the sake of the participants.

Similarly, in a problem involving perimeter, the measurements did not add up to the "correct" answer. When her careful measurements and calculations came out wrong, my daughter again called me over. She knew what she was doing; it wasn't a lack of knowledge or user error on her part. So I attempted the problem myself. Clicking and dragging the virtual ruler, I measured and got the same results she had. In order to get the answer that was considered correct, I had to pretend one side of the quadrilateral was 7 cm when it clearly measured longer than that by more than a millimeter. Had it been less than a millimeter, I might have considered that line thickness in the drawing might have thrown the results off, but offsetting for that didn't help, and neither did resizing my screen. The error was too large for discounting as a line thickness and offsetting issue. It was a real error in the problem. Either fixing the error in the size of the quadrilateral, or else wording it to round to the nearest correct answer, would resolve that issue.

Some issues we had were perceived ambiguity, but that is a problem more to do with being a divergent thinker, than with the service, because we encounter this problem everywhere: In the science section, she encountered the question of which system an impulse from the hand encounters: the central, or the peripheral nervous system? She happened to know it didn't engage only one or the other. Had the question asked which system the impulse engaged with *first*, there would have been no problem for us.

Overall, I found the science section weak, but saw in the user forum some complaints about it being out-of-date, and the moderator responded that science is not the primary focus of this service because it is primarily concerned with Common Core adherence, and therefore the Language Arts and Math subjects are the ones that are updated and maintained robustly, with subjects like Social Studies and Science being offered more as a bonus on the side, and that for the price, it's still a bargain. Since people who are passionate about science probably wouldn't be using this service as the entirety of their child's education, I suppose that's acceptable.

Additionally, it offers these nice features which have my attention as a potential subscriber despite the drawbacks:

- It offers a discussion forum where issues, questions, and support are available, both from moderators and other users.

- It sends regular informative emails about the product and how to get the most from it.

- The math curriculum in particular, has my attention, because many elementary-level math curricula treat arithmetic as nearly the sole topic of math, sometimes for years on end. This product emphasizes that while important, math is not merely arithmetic, and offers good opportunities to use math as a way to analyze data, solve real-world problems, think spatially, and use logic and the properties of numbers to solve problems strategically. The shortcomings of presenting nothing but arithmetic and rote for the first several years of instruction are becoming widely acknowledged, but many curricula still present it that way, and this does not. The occasional glitches are something I verify and assist with, on a case-by-case basis. The math curriculum alone may still be worth the entire package and all its warts.

I do see the value of this automated quiz-driven system, for moving through concepts in math and reading in a hands-off way, and am still not entirely writing it off, because even though they find the animated format more groan-worthy than great, it would free up a lot of time on my part, and sometimes that is a pressing need when homeschooling multiple children with a wide age range.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Diversity vs. Uniformity of thought, and is there really any such thing as a Common Core? 

Overhearing someone talk about wishing they enjoyed a certain book, but reading it despite finding it terribly dull, gave rise to pondering what is to be gained from doing that when there are more books than a person can read in a lifetime, to choose from, and surely from that large set, something enlightening to the individual, could be chosen instead? Life's too short to spend time reading things you gain nothing from but bragging rights (and the shame of knowing that the time spent in doing so, would have been better spent doing almost anything else).

That's what I dislike about the whole philosophy of an arbitrary set of songs and stories that 'must' be read for a child to be considered educated, and that is my chief objection to the entire philosophy behind the books titled "What Your X-Grader Needs To Know".

It presumes that in a nearly limitless set of possibilities, the particular choices of one person, bear more weight, than the differing choices of anyone else. It also presumes that every child needs to learn the same songs, the same fables, the same cultural stories, to be educated, and that is provincial at best. 'Uniformity Uber Alles' is not a paradigm for brilliance. 

I counter that it is actually more important that we have diversity in upbringing and education, than uniformity. Since no one can cover the whole body of human learning, unless their learning is as wide as it is shallow, attempting to grow a monoculture of such shallow-rooted, short-clipped grass, (to use a metaphor) based on one master scheme for what makes every child well-educated, is bound only to produce widespread equal mediocrity, if it were to succeed. 

I would rather encourage my child to be (if this were her passion), the very best underwater basket-weaver there is (and only those following their passion ever become the great masters of it), rather than live in unhappy mediocrity, following someone else's blueprint. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

We're going for it, trying an online interactive curriculum!

I've been invited to try Time4Learning for one month in exchange for a candid review. My opinion will be entirely my own, so be sure to come back and read about my experience. Time4Learning can be used as a homeschool curriculum, for afterschool enrichment and for summer skill sharpening. Find out how to write your owncurriculum review for Time4Learning.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

When we Unschool

A recent conversation on got me to thinking about the fact that our style shifts over time, and sometimes we Unschool, which I just think of as letting go of the curriculum and all other regimentation for a while, for whatever cause has emerged. When we are doing this, we aren't doing a style of homeschooling that is called unschooling; we are just living life and not concerned with output or external motivations.

I let go when I realize priorities have had to shift momentarily (sick kids or sick me, or else a new food allergy, or my daughter is just feeling burned out, etc). We scale back to a simpler existence, where there is no pressure, and we just take time to cuddle on the sofa, and I take time to really listen to them. And I've learned that those exchanges of real attention are so much more important than whether DD got another page done in her curriculum that day.

And then things get better, and I feel more on top of it, and housework and studies get done regularly, until we hit the next slump. Learning to slump gracefully must either be a character defect or a state of grace, I am not sure which.

But slumps are never lost on my daughter. She doesn't sit around bored, ever. She gleefully absorbs herself in deep thoughts, drawings, imaginings, her own internal dialogue, creating things with paper and pen, glue and scissors, sometimes cardboard and cloth. She always comes back from that, refreshed, and when we're all ready, she does well at her studies again for a while. Trying to go straight at the studies as a form of discipline day after day, week after week, wears her down, wilts her, bores her, and her progress grinds to a very resistant halt.

So maybe for some kids, letting go is important. 

I went to school, and I let go whenever I needed to, which was often. My prolongued episodes of staring out into space to have Deep Thoughts, would have gotten me a label and some medication, undoubtedly, had they happened in this day and age, but really, I was engaging in important creativity and authentic self-hood. It didn't mean I couldn't apply myself to anything interesting or valid...but wild horses couldn't drive me to focus on that which bored me to death. I'm still that way. Listening to the nattering conversation of some women in a cluster at a local preschool playgroup in a public place, I realized I actually couldn't follow their conversation, because it was so BORING! It all became so much bleating of sheep, to my ears. Baaaaa! They probably would have thought the exact same thing about it, if someone discussed news about the Large Hadron Collider, in their earshot.

And that is exactly what my daughter, and most other kids (whether they attend school or not) do, when sitting through a dull lecture on something. It's what I do when reading through, over and over, something that is so badly written as to boggle the mind, like the reading comprehension questions in the grade 3 standardized test. Somewhere there must be a think tank that trains people to write in overly simplistic terms with the devious intent of creating gobbledegook that will befuddle the mind of the reader, and grow more incomprehensible each time the victim re-reads it! For what purpose, who can say, but there must be, or else why would official reading comprehension questions aimed at kids, paralyze the analytical portions of my fully-literate adult brain?

I'm learning that learning itself, is not the same thing as impressing concerned relatives that your child is indeed not brain-dead as a result of not going to school. It's not the same thing as scoring well on a test, though one can score better by actually learning the material, usually. And I am also learning, that letting go from time to time, isn't letting go of the ability to learn. It may actually be nurturing the ability to learn, because the ability to engage in prolongued Deep Thought, or prolonged Diffused Awareness, increases creative insight.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Tyranny of science fairs, contests, and forms

When filling out entry forms for things like science fairs or art contests, I balk at the blanks for 'grade', 'teacher' and 'school'.

Most homeschoolers I know use those designations without a second thought, and I know that is the most convenient way to avoid hassles as you go through society. 

But it bugs me on a deep level, and much as I try to just grin and bear it, I resent that I MUST call my daughter a "-grader" as if separating children into presumed school grades is a universal requirement for human life, and that they are ALL in a grade, whether we use the schools from which the assigned grade levels spring, or not.

The subtle power of language must not be understated. Language that deliberately dis-empowers and dehumanizes the patient, has long been used to establish and maintain very deeply unequal power relationships between persons with a degree and medical license, and persons seeking diagnosis, treatment, or health advice from them. The client seeking the advice of a professional, can, with the proper routine procedures, requirements, and language, be rendered into a supplicant. Schools and other institutions also use language that reflects and maintains a power inequality that displays the users, residents, or clients, as dependent on, and subject to, the authority of the institution.

This is why, even though I recognize that it is simply less personal hassle to go by the name 'homeschooler' and call my daughter a grade-level to comply with everyone else's expectations, it feels on some level, like conceding. Like we are ratifying, by signing below, their right to put her in a grade classification and call her an altered version of school-pupil. And by extension, their right to define kids who are school-free, as kids who are actually schooled, only in a different physical location, but still at the pleasure and mercy of the State. Which is literally true, in many states, Texas being one notable (and enviable!) exception.

But can she participate in anything with forms to fill out, if we don't? She'd rather be called a "-grader" than never get to compete in anything. So I sign on the dotted line, feeling as if I am signing away self-determinism for a contest. And then I feel ridiculous for phrasing it to myself that way. It's only a label. 

But labels hold such power, and agreement to use them is such a tacit admission of the label-issuer's power over us; the power to set terms for our participation in society.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Why we are learning Soroban Abacus

As a kid whose math/spatial/logic scores always had me placed in the advanced math class at whatever school I went to (we moved a lot), regardless of the fact that I routinely flunked math classes until high school geometry, I was a classic case of math phobia, and the belief that I was just no good at it, instilled from many years of failing to do what school required, in part because the way that school taught math, seemed to be demanding that I stop trying to think on my own, and just submit to meaningless rote, and give up on trying to really understand.

I was very good at visualizing and rotating objects and spaces in my head, but completely bumbling at arithmetic and algebra. Even memorizing formulae always felt uncertain and arbitrary because it completely sidestepped understanding the underlying logic. It was like being required to utter whole strings of unfamiliar sounds, without being allowed to learn any of the constituent words or their meanings. Until geometry, at which point I was fortunate enough to have a teacher who used the Socratic method, and most of the class, geared toward memorization, struggled, while I sailed through the class joyously. However, the next class that required a strong footing in algebraic reasoning (trigonometry) saw me struggling again, wishing I had time to develop that reasoning, but faced instead with the pressure to memorize and regurgitate, or else fail.

I saw my daughter at a very tender age, doing division with real things. She wished candy came in bags of 6, so she and her brother could each have 3 and not have one left over. I got excited and we had lots of conversations, and lots of discoveries. Odd and even numbers had real properties that interacted in ways that could be predicted logically, and then tested empirically. What we discovered ourselves, made sense and was memorable, in contrast to being handed a string of rules and told to memorize them.

But when I showed her the symbols on a page or chalkboard, her understanding went out the window. When taught by the same methods prevalent in schools, she started guessing wildly and inaccurately, afraid to get the answer wrong, and stopped trusting or engaging with her own reasoning ability. I recognized it all: the glazed look, the impression of mental wheels frozen, and the inscrutability of symbols dancing on a page. 

What a disaster! But what next? Thankfully, I heard about the Japanese abacus, the soroban. At first, seeing videos of the lightning-fast competitions where kids calculated many large numbers in their heads, I wondered what the real value of that could be, beyond impressing people. Some people memorize Pi to a hundred decimal places or more, and I see that as a complete waste of gray matter. The fact that their calculations were based on moving beads around in an imagined, visualized abacus, seemed at first glance to prove that they weren't actually calculating mentally, any more than a person using a calculator, is actually doing the calculations.

But eventually, researching it, I found that the nature of the way numeric information is stored and accessed by the brain, is different with the mental abacus, than with other methods. There are beneficial changes to the brain in using the Soroban to learn arithmetic in terms of memory capacity and white matter. It bypasses language centers of the brain, for a sort of direct link to visual/spatial reasoning. It also cultivates thinking in terms of inverse numbers, which is kind of like learning to see both positive and negative spaces in art and sculpture. Inverse numbers can also be a part of mathematical thinking without the abacus, but the abacus requires it and demonstrates it in ways that may be unique. At any rate, the numeracy skills of populations taught on the abacus seem to be superior to those not trained on the abacus, and that was enough to know, to give it a try.

So I got a soroban abacus and some workbooks from Nurture Minds,  and we have begun. 
I'm learning alongside my kids, and wish I had been given this advantage, at their ages, but even at my age, I am finding it a thrilling discovery.