...a companion blog to "Math-Frolic," specifically for interviews, book reviews, weekly-linkfests, and longer posts or commentary than usually found at the Math-Frolic site.

"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show." ---Bertrand Russell (1907) Rob Gluck

"I have come to believe, though very reluctantly, that it [mathematics] consists of tautologies. I fear that, to a mind of sufficient intellectual power, the whole of mathematics would appear trivial, as trivial as the statement that a four-legged animal is an animal." ---Bertrand Russell (1957)

******************************************************************** Rob Gluck

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Of Education and Game-playing

 I often try to steer clear of these education debates, but did enjoy Cathy O'Neil's recent quick take on Diane Ravitch and Common Core standards:


A stupendous amount has been written (pro and con) about Common Core in the last year-or-two, so don't mean to single out Cathy's piece above other views, except I like the approach she's taken.

I grew up at a time when several of my peers were graduating high school without basic reading, writing, and math skills… how these particular students were even being passed along from grade-to-grade, let alone graduating high school, was hard to comprehend. It was, frankly, an embarrassing, deplorable (even fraudulent) situation. Universities found, to their surprise, that entering freshman sometimes lacked the necessary skills for college work… significant remedial programs had to be instituted.

So when, understandably, standardized proficiency-testing programs began implementation state-by-state, I eagerly supported it. Since then, I've often participated in the 'grading' of these standardized tests, and what became apparent within a few years was that teachers were 'teaching to the test.' It had all become, almost inevitably, a sort of game for teachers, whose own evaluation was often based in part on how well their own students did on such tests. So they gamed the system, likely skirting some teaching responsibilities, creativity, and effectiveness in the process.

I've written earlier that I believe the use of 'flipped classrooms,' MOOCs, and digital resources in general is one of the most fascinating, even 'paradigm-shifting' changes in education coming along, yet grappling with "standardized testing" remains a hugely difficult nut to solve. Not only must there be some sort of standardized requirements (especially for mathematics) that all students should meet before graduating high school (…and really, LONG before graduating high school), but I believe they should indeed be national, and not variable state-by-state standards. BUT these should be truly bare, minimalist levels of literacy and numeracy for our adult population (or each grade level), not "high-bar" or accomplished standards.
In some ways Common Core seems like one of those near-comical results portrayed when 'designing things by committee': http://tinyurl.com/mcay7uq

I once attended a college that required a "swim test" (long since dropped) for graduation. The idea was not that everyone should be a good or fast or very capable swimmer, but simply that everyone ought have some ability to float and dog paddle and move through the water, in the event of an emergency -- that this was simply a life skill (even if not an academic skill) one ought have as a college graduate.
The whole nature of "literacy" is rapidly changing… in the future, basic societal "literacy" won't so heavily entail reading-and-writing skills, but rather computer, coding, and office-suite sorts of skills -- THESE will be basic needs to successfully 'swim' in society (having read and discussed "Hamlet" in high school, or knowing how to diagram a sentence, will be of virtually no use!) So I still believe some form of standardized proficiency testing is necessary, but I too have reservations about rigid Common Core standards, as configured -- almost inevitably, they will set in motion another round of diversion and educational game-playing, stifling creativity... while raking in big bucks for the private enterprises developing/administering them.

Perhaps we have become such a society of manipulators, shirkers, and system-gamers that
there is simply no good solution to such a double-edged problem (both no-uniform-testing and mandatory standardized testing are problematic), but only least-bad solutions…. but as Cathy concludes, the first, necessary steps really involve, not reforming our educational system, but alleviating poverty and related underlying conditions that undermine learning. And on THAT score, our nation seems to be moving entirely in the wrong direction. (...Long, one of the most lunatic things to me, has been the way our public schools are funded largely through local property taxes -- a system insuring wide disparity in quality between schools... but that's a topic for a whole different discussion.)

Of course, a LOT more thoughts/news on math Common Core available through Google:

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