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Extenuating circumstances aside… July 26, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, societal commentary, teaching.
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4 comments

A friend posted an article today on Facebook titled, “I won’t hire people who use poor grammar.  Here’s why.”   The article is written by Kyle Wiens, who is the CEO of iFixit.  He hires people who write technical documentation.  In the context of needing people who write well, I sort of understand why he would think the way he does.  However, I have to admit that I personally would like to retitle it, “I am an ignorant asshole. Here’s why.”

A while back, I wrote a post on misunderstanding learning disabilities where I discussed the very common misconception that people who make mistakes with writing are not detail oriented or may even be lazy.  I made two arguments in that post: 1 – Learning disabilities exist on a continuum, and only the people who have some of the worst disabilities are identified.  2 – People who are intelligent are often able to use their other abilities to cover up their disabilities, making their identification as LD even more difficult.  Therefore, you may have someone who is incredibly intelligent but still frequently has difficulty with spelling or grammar.

In my personal experience, I have found that spelling and grammar are very seldom indicative of someone’s true ability.  I spent a while working with someone who was dyslexic, editing their writing.  I can tell you from personal experience that it is a lot easier to clean up the grammar and spelling errors of someone who is dyslexic than it is to teach someone to clearly communicate, regardless of their facility with the English language.  Someone who can spell well is not necessarily articulate.  Ability to explain complex ideas is a better indication of someone’s intelligence, even if that explanation includes misspellings or misuse of punctuation.

Many years ago, I had someone who witnessed some damage to my car.  I had to later ask this person to write a letter to my insurance company explaining what she had seen.  When she gave me the letter, every word was spelled correctly and the punctuation was perfect.  She was, after all, a secretary who spent a good chunk of her day typing up letters dictated to her by her supervisor.  However, the sentences made no sense.  You could not tell heads or tails about what had happened to the vehicles based on her description.  Yet based on what Wiens wrote in his article, this person would be a better choice than someone who explained the idea clearly yet made a few spelling or grammatical errors.  By his own reasoning, he would have never hired someone like Agatha Christie. I mean, obviously she didn’t know how to communicate using written language nor did she have an eye for detail, right?

Wiens uses the phrase, “extenuating circumstances aside,” which supposedly means he understands that there are people with documented difficulties.  Here’s the problem: no one is born with a sign on their forehead proclaiming they’re dyslexic.  Very often, they may not know it and will work very hard to deal with their difficulties, attributing the problem to a lack of eye for details.  Many people go through life not knowing they have a disability, and it gets harder to deal with it when others decide to use superficial means like spelling as a proxy for intelligence.

(Incidentally, I misused the words right and write the first time I wrote this post.  I don’t think that means I’m an idiot.  I think it just means I need to proof my work a couple times.  However, the real indicator of intelligence is realizing that even with multiple rounds, I miss errors, so the logical choice is to get fresh eyes to look stuff over.  Unfortunately, I don’t want to use up my potential copy editors’ good will on blog posts, so you’ll have to continue to deal with the occasional error if you continue to read the blog.)

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Some thoughts (like, a million or so) on instructional technologies July 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, family, gifted, grad school, homeschooling, math, older son, research, science, societal commentary, teaching, younger son.
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3 comments

I’ve been having a discussion with Massimo about his post on instructional technology.  Despite what I’ve already said, I have a lot more thoughts, so it’s just easier to write it out as a blog post (or maybe more than one).

I think I’m going to start by defining some things about how classrooms operate online.  First, you have what I would call the Udacity (or maybe Khan Academy) model.  This is a model where you basically watch a lecture online, complete and submit homework assignments online, and discuss things via discussion boards (or Blackboard or Moodle).  The second model is completely computerized – all the lessons are presented via a reading or lecture, and the bulk of the course is completing problems.  Both my sons have used the former method to learn math.  One uses EPGY and the other uses Aleks.  On top of these choices for online education, there are in-class courses, mixed (some components online and others in a classroom or lab), and earning credit by exam, such as AP, CLEP, or DANTE exams.

If you look at these options from the point of view of a university, some of these options for educating students are going to be more appealing than others.  Credit by exam, of course, is going to be the least appealing.  The university gets a fee for administering the exam but pretty much nothing else.  Many universities simply will not accept them, but there are a lot of them (mostly non-elite schools) that will.

The other one that is bad from a university POV is the completely computerized model.  It works incredibly well for things like math and some sciences because it basically moves working from a textbook to working on the computer.  Also, most of the programs are adaptive in that, if you’re having difficulty with a concept, it will first give you additional problems.  If this doesn’t seem to be helping, it will pull you off that topic and put you on to another, waiting a while before it allows you to revisit the difficult topic.  (I believe K12 uses a completely computerized model for all courses, but I have no experience with it and can’t say how well it works for language or social science-type courses.)  In a classroom where one person is a facilitator supervising several students working on the course, this is a very cost effective method, and a lot of elementary and secondary schools are beginning to utilize it.  When doing it for online education, however, it represents an expense that is more, generally speaking, than hiring an individual to teach a class.  The majority of tuition money would be spent on licensing (as there are already several good ones out there) or development of a program (which may not compete well with pre-existing products) and not going into university coffers.  Also, why offer something that everyone else can offer, too?  That’s certainly not going to set you apart in terms of attracting students.  Therefore, universities are more likely to want to have in-class courses, mixed, or online courses that utilize the Udacity model.

In the discussion Massimo’s final comment was this:

I was not aware that there is now solid research showing that online education is superior to classroom teaching for the vast majority of students (I assume that at Stanford they no longer offer classroom-based math courses — it would make no sense to have continued, given that online courses work better). I am surprised that classroom-based education still exists at all, and that so many of us still believe that it is better — but I am sure society will soon abandon this useless relic of a time past, and embrace the more effective online education.

Here’s the problem: there are decades of research showing that online education is, at the very least, equally effective for most students and significantly better for other students.  So why aren’t we using it more?  I could also state that lectures have been been shown to be one of the poorest forms of teaching known to man, so why do we continue to use it so much?  Turns out, there’s an answer.  In this journal called Science (you may have heard of it), they ask exactly this question about interactive teaching and inquiry-based classrooms:

Given the widespread agreement, it may seem surprising that change has not progressed rapidly nor been driven by the research universities as a collective force. Instead, reform has been initiated by a few pioneers, while many other scientists have actively resisted changing their teaching. So why do outstanding scientists who demand rigorous proof for scientific assertions in their research continue to use and, indeed defend on the basis of intuition alone, teaching methods that are not the most effective? Many scientists are still unaware of the data and analyses that demonstrate the effiectiveness of active learning techniques. Others may distrust the data because they see scientists who have flourished in the current educational system. Still others feel intimidated by the challenge of learning new teaching methods or may fear that identification as teachers will reduce their credibility as researchers.

I’d like to note that this was published in 2004, almost a decade ago.  Here we are, 8 years later, and from my observation, active teaching strategies are seldom used in most classrooms.

I think it’s safe to say that this is the same set of problems faced with online education.  I would also add that people who learn well in the classroom have a hard time understanding that others may learn as well or better using a different medium.  Or there’s just simply the problem that they’re afraid they’re going to lose their jobs.  (I only see this as likely in the scenario colleges would somehow try to implement completely computerized online classes…but you can see my comments on that above.)

One major issue that I see is how few college instructors really understand how people learn.  They learned well through a lecture style course, and so they assume that it is obviously the best way to learn.  I personally think that every instructor ought to have at least one course in educational neuroscience so that they understand how lousy lectures really are as well as so that they may communicate to their students how they ought to try to approach learning and studying.  (This was a significant part of the class I taught to incoming engineering students last year, but not all places have a course where you can cover topics like that.)  I do realize that such a course is not available at most universities, but I don’t think that should prevent one from accessing this knowledge.  I would suggest that one who has never taken such a course invest some time in the course materials available online (are you feeling the irony?) at Harvard.  Those opposed to online education can read the book Brain Rules, which was used as the text for the course.  (Of course, if you are opposed to online education, I hope you’re reading an actual paperback rather than downloading it onto your iPad.)

Massimo also says:

I am not disputing that online education may be the only/best option for some — but, from it being a valid option for some, to it replacing classroom teaching foreveryone, there is a bit of a leap, don’t you think ?

No, I don’t think so.  There are two reasons why I think this.  First, teachers who embrace online learning are more likely to embrace other technology that is likely to enhance learning.  Generally, this will enhance learning beyond anything that is likely to occur in a lecture-based class that occurs in a classroom.  Despite what some people may say, research shows (read Brain Rules) that learning which is multisensory (like watching YouTube clips) is better for you than sitting in a lecture.  Images will convey more information than talking, and video (or seeing something in action) conveys more information than straight images.  Sitting in a lab is likely the best environment of all.  Online learning also is likely to be able to keep people’s attention.  (If you read Brain Rules, you’ll come to find that most people can only focus for about ten minutes, and then they need something to restimulate their attention.)

Second, I think accessibility is a huge issue in education.  I have one parent who found it incredibly difficult to finish a degree (and she never did) because she had a choice between quitting her job to take classes at the local university, which were only offered during the day, and taking night classes at an expensive private college.  I have a sibling who is currently finishing a degree in accounting online because she lives two hours from a university and works 4-10s.  How is she supposed to finish a degree at a school in those circumstances?  There are a lot of people in similar situations who would otherwise be unable to earn a degree.  In fact, my husband earned his MS through Penn State through a Navy program where he took some classes at the university and some through a video link…well over a decade ago.  He said he would’ve been unlikely to pursue a degree if he’d had to drive across Puget Sound (he was in the Seattle area at the time) evenings for two or three years.

Okay, so obviously I know a lot of people who have benefitted from these sorts of things.  So why do I think it could work for everyone?  I think this is a basic principle behind Universal Design for Learning: the notion is that if you design a curriculum that helps people with difficulties and disabilities, you’re going to help many other people as well.  Our brains work on a continuum, and while not everyone may have learning disabilities, they may operate in a region where learning may be difficult, if not disabling, when it’s presented a certain way.  Therefore, if you design materials to teach someone who is hearing impaired, for instance, you’ll likely help a lot of people who may have difficulty with ingesting information through auditory means in general.  (Lest you think this must be a small part of the population, take into consideration that I was working toward a master’s degree before I found out that I likely have some sort of auditory processing disorder…and only because my son was diagnosed with one.  Smart people can often do well even with learning disabilities because they often have other ways to compensate…but it can be frustrating for them, nonetheless.  I wrote a post on this topic a while ago.)

So what does this have to do with online learning?  I can give a concrete example: my older son is ADHD and had auditory processing disorder.  He really struggles sitting in a normal classroom and, for most of his life, his teachers  told me he couldn’t possibly be gifted because of his classroom performance despite the fact that I had documented evidence to the contrary.  We took him out of the classroom, and he started earning college-level credits through CLEP exams beginning his freshman year of high school…working independently, primarily through reading.  As I mentioned above, he does all of his math through Aleks.  He does extremely well on pretty much any type of standardizes examination.  I can easily see a kid like him, even with less problems, having huge difficulties sitting in a college classroom but being able to handle an online class very easily in no small part because the method of presentation.  So why can’t this help someone who is less distractable?

Take it a step further.  If online learning is ideal for people who have jobs and families and can work in the evenings but not get to classes, why can’t it also work for students living in dorms or even at home?  Maybe some of them find that they concentrate best at night and it is preferable to sitting in a large, crowded, warm, boring classroom at 8 a.m.  (And yes, people do function on different clocks.)  Aren’t you benefitting the student by allowing them to work at their peak time?

I’m not saying everyone will take advantage of this, but I think it ought to be an option for many people.  Some people really thrive on personal interaction and keeping them out of a classroom would inhibit them from learning.  Some people don’t.  The ideal situation is where students have choices and options.

I think the final thing I have to say on this topic is that the real problem, in my mind, is that teachers see themselves as essential to the learning process.  Really, the one thing I’ve learned going through graduate school and homeschooling my kids is that teachers are more often an impediment.  The university functions to teach students, and yet, in many cases, students are quite capable of learning the materials on their own.  That’s really the reason behind homework: you learn it far better by doing it than by sitting and listening to someone talk about it.  In reality, students are still learning on their own.  The role of the university is to focus the effort, speed up the process, and assess performance.  Students are not necessarily learning anything from their classes that they cannot learn on their own…and in fact, they may be learning it less deeply than if they did it on their own.

I find this ironic given that the other aspect of a university is research: people are expected to learn new things and create new knowledge all the time.  If learning really only happens meaningfully in a classroom, then research couldn’t exist.  I can’t wrap my head around the fact that researchers who learn things on their own all the time will turn around and claim that undergraduates somehow lack that ability.

My conclusion, therefore, is that online education should seriously be considered as an alternative whenever available.   I think it democratizes education and makes a better environment for learning for a significant portion of students.  The reason we haven’t shifted to these models is mostly because professors, on the whole, are unwilling to consider that it should be done another way and are uninformed about the benefits.

Misunderstanding learning disabilities March 21, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, grad school, older son, science, teaching.
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19 comments

I was extremely interested when I saw that FSP wrote a post about learning disabilities.  I was equally disappointed when I saw her perspective:

Would knowing that ‘they can’t help it’ help us — the advisor-editors — be more understanding when we encounter this frustrating problem? Would it make us — especially those of us who (like to think that we) don’t have this problem — more likely to be patient when we have to point out (and fix) the same problem again and again?

In my case, probably not. It was interesting to hear this idea, but I am reluctant to embrace the ‘they can’t help it’ explanation.

This sentiment was echoed in several of the comments.

I personally find it frustrating that teachers at all levels will make the assumption that someone who makes these repeated errors is lazy and/or stupid rather than suffering from a learning disability.  As the parent of a child who has a couple, I’ve had to spend a lot of time learning about them in order to make sure my son received an adequate education.  I don’t think this is bad as it has given me a very different perspective on how to approach teaching.  In fact, there have been times I’ve had to explain to teachers how to work with my son because they simply have no training in these areas.  (And 90% of the time, they think they can somehow push things off onto a special ed teacher, not realizing that a child with average or exceptional functioning, even one with a learning disability, very often cannot qualify for special ed.)  What’s worse is that, at the college level, most people don’t even have a background in education let alone have any clue how learning disabilities can impact a typical college student.  They seldom think about how their teaching or interactions can place students with LDs at a serious disadvantage.

I realize it’s a futile effort to educate everyone, but there are a couple very important things to realize about learning disabilities, especially when dealing with college students.

1 – Learning disabilities exist on a continuum, just like any other brain function.  Usually, only the very worst cases of learning disabilities will be recognized and diagnosed.  This means there really are a lot of people in the population that have learning disabilities of lesser degree.  And these lesser, undiagnosed learning disabilities can and do have negative impacts on a student’s learning and ability to express their knowledge.  This has been why there is such a push to recognize and teach to different learning styles.  It helps teachers to make their subject accessible to people of all abilities.

2 – The more intelligent a person is, the easier it is for them to have an undiagnosed learning disability.  Intelligent people can and do compensate for their weaknesses by using their strengths.  This became abundantly clear to me when I found out that my older son (the scary-smart one) was diagnosed as having an auditory processing disorder.  I had no idea that his behavior was indicative of a learning disability…because I’d been doing the same thing for years!  So chances are, I have the same thing…but I never realized it until someone who had expertise in dealing with the issues point these things out to me, and I was in my late 20s and in grad school at that point.  Learning that my son had these issues and analyzing my own approach to learning has been a huge boon.  Still, how do I deal with a teacher who has a very auditory/sequential approach to teaching?  While I had a very accommodating math professor who was more than willing to draw plots or graphs to demonstrate various concepts, not all professors have been so willing.  Further, there are a number of professors who simply can’t think of ways to graphically illustrate a concept.  So am I the one with the limitation, or are they?  Either way, the situation is terribly frustrating as a student.

My frustration with all of this is that there is a lot of ignorance of 2e (twice exceptional) students.  College students, and especially grad students, may have learned to compensate for any learning disabilities that they have.  This makes it hard to tell when someone is LD or not.  However, a good place to start is making the assumption that they really can’t help it.  If someone has made it as far as college, and especially if they are in grad school, chances are that they would have realized and corrected the mistake long ago if they could.  I am not sure why people who work so hard to be scientists would turn around and be negligent about the presentation, knowing that people will make assumptions that they are lazy.

ETA: If you doubt my view of this, please look at this article, describing many of the things I have brought up along with references to studies.  Specifically:

Many more students may be learning disabled and gifted than anyone realizes. In spite of their high intellectual ability, such students remain unchallenged, suffer silently, and do not achieve their potential because their educational needs are not recognized and addressed. Unlike the situation in which a learning disability is accompanied by another “handicap,” students with LD who are gifted present a paradoxical picture of

exceptional strengths coexisting with specific deficits. Curiously, this condition carries with it both a blessing and a burden. On the one hand, gifted students with learning disabilities can draw on their gifts and talents to compensate for their disability. With support, understanding, and some instructional intervention, many are able to overcome their academic difficulties and go on to productive, satisfying careers and lives. On the other hand, because they are able to draw on their strengths, for many students the disability is masked while the “drag” on their academic performance prevents them from consistently achieving at high levels. Thus, they are often not identified and continue to be a severely misunderstood and underserved population. When gifted students fail to achieve their potential, whatever the cause, our nation loses a great deal of talent.

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