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Why parenting sucks… May 25, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, math, teaching, younger son.
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Now that the school year is over, I can finally discuss one thing that’s been driving me nuts for the past couple weeks.

Most of you know that I’ve been volunteering to work with a group in my son’s class that’s slightly ahead in math.  The teacher was doing some grouping to help the kids who were struggling and more or less leaving the other ones to do “enrichment activities” for an additional twenty minutes outside of normal math time every day.  I was going in once a week to help with the advanced group, although that evolved into reading math stories to the whole class every other week.

One day was very odd.  As I sat down to work with the ‘advanced’ group, the younger son started talking.  He started explaining addition and multiplicative identities to the other kids, but it was obvious they didn’t know what he was talking about.  At first, I tried to get back to what I’d planned on discussing, but I also didn’t want to make him feel like he was being shushed.  So when the other kids started this eye-roll, “here he goes again” type of body language,  I tried to augment what he was saying.  I wondered how often this type of thing was happening.  I felt bad about the whole thing because the kids seemed interested when I was talking about it.  However, here’s the younger son, feeling like he can talk to these other kids about some of the math he was doing at home, and they don’t understand and are blowing him off.

Unfortunately, I know how he feels because this happens to me as an adult, almost always when I’m talking to my kids’ teachers.  I have always gotten the feeling that they think I don’t understand children or how they work.  I obviously am just one of those parents that’s overestimating my child’s intelligence and pushing him beyond  his ability.  If my children really were ‘gifted’ (always said with a sneer, if the dreaded word is even spoken at all), then they wouldn’t behave the way they do.  (I think this means they expect my kids to sit still and be compliant.)  And I’m most definitely not competent enough to handle educating my own child.

In fact, it happened again very recently.  The younger son’s end of year test scores came back, and all of the focus was on one subtest where he’s “right in with his peers”.  That is, a full year ahead of national norms.  They’re very concerned about his progress because of that subtest and wanted him to spend next year in the normal classroom to ‘get him back on track’.  (Because working a year behind his current achievement level helps him how????)  Very conveniently, they ignore the subtest where he’s four years ahead…and the other two or three where he’s still very far ahead of his classmates, as well.  They use that one subtest as evidence that I’m doing a lousy job teaching him math at home.

The good news is that they’re going to let him continue to use his current math curriculum, only he will be doing it at school in the fall.  I have a few reservations (mostly that he won’t get the help he needs), but I have hopes that just maybe they’ll start believing me.  I know it’s hard to believe a kid can go from getting teary-eyed about getting subtraction problems wrong to gleefully manipulating fractions and decimals in a single year.  On the other hand, I am pretty sure he’s said things that would make them realize he knows some of this stuff…but I suspect they just blew it off or attributed it to his “overactive imagination”.

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In case I forget… March 7, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science.
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A couple days ago, someone asked me what the units for conductivity were.  For the life of me, I couldn’t remember.  To add insult to injury, when I had the answer (1/(m•ohms)), I felt like a complete idiot.  It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen it in a while and couldn’t remember, it was that I had used it recently and completely blanked out.

Some of the work I do involves different ways of depositing metals.  These different deposition methods result in the metals having different conductivities and surface roughnesses.  I have to model small features such that these things, along with other parameters like skin depth, become important.  Therefore, I often need to perform conversions between what I find in the literature and what my simulation software uses for units.  I’ve written reports and made conference posters where I had to include this information.  So I work with it a lot.

I think the problem, therefore, is that I wasn’t at my desk or I would have remembered.  You may laugh, but there is a lot of research into what’s called “context dependent memory”. (Here’s the wiki article.)  Basically, if you learn something or use something in a particular environment, that environment is likely to cue you to remember the information learned there.

I wish I’d known about this a long time ago.

Remembering facts is easier when you learn them in the same environment where you use them.  Therefore, one way to do better on an exam is to study in the classroom where you’re likely to take the exam.  Or you can use a scent sachet when you study, and then bring it to your exam as the smell of the sachet will help with recall of the items learned while smelling it.  Or something bright red…or…well, basically anything familiar that you can have with you during a test.

I’m not sure what else would have helped in my case, however, given access to my office wasn’t possible at that point.  The fact of the matter is that I have a horrible memory for details.  I write things down.  In fact, I write everything down.  The act of writing things down will help, but not always.  Repetition helps, but I think I have to repeat more than the average person to get it down.  And having children (resulting in a lack of focus) and getting less sleep very obviously has made my memory problem worse.

I have to admit that it’s hard living in a society where recall of facts is equated with intelligence, especially when I was taking classes.  However, I try to remind myself that I have a lot of other good things: intuition, creativity, and motivation are not easily measured on tests, and yet, in my experience, they are often more important than pulling things out of the recesses of my brain.  (On the other hand, you now know why I have such a huge library of technical books.)

So there are ways to deal with it, and it’s not quintessential to get through life…and…I’m sure I would make another point about this, if I could remember what it was.

The magical standardized exams December 9, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, gifted, homeschooling, math, older son, science, societal commentary, teaching.
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I’ve been reading a lot of different takes on the whole fiasco of the Florida school board member with two MS degrees who failed the state’s 10th grade standardized test.  His name is Rick Roach.

While it doesn’t seem to be a popular view, I am agreeing with Roach: the test really doesn’t have anything to do with how people will fare in the real world.  I’d dare say that grades are probably a better predictor, although they have their flaws, too.  Students who do well in school tend to be those who read teachers well and know what they want.  They don’t have to be very bright to figure out how to keep teachers happy, follow the rules, and, in general, conform.  They stay organized, hand in their work, which was hopefully done well, and keep the people around them happy.  I hate to say it, but these are the skills that tend to help people at a job, not passing a standardized exam.

In my view, people who do well in life are those who are able to conform to the expectations of those around them OR those who follow their passions and work very hard at them.  I don’t believe that tests do much more than how well one takes tests.  And, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure all the emphasis on getting kids up to speed in science, math, and reading is doing much good and may, in fact, be doing a significant amount of harm.

The reason I say this is the experience with my older son, who is now a sophomore in high school.  So let’s start out with a shocker: he got kicked out of school recently.  He was going part-time, but he wasn’t sufficiently interested and never made it a priority to be there.  This is the same kid who became so engrossed in studying US history that he passed both CLEP exams on the subject, earning him a full year of US history credits at most colleges…in 9th grade.

We decided we better start looking at how he’s going to get his degree, so I figured that since he’s almost 16, he can start prepping to take the GED.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, this is a high school equivalency exam, but you can’t take it until you turn 16.  It tests on reading, writing, science, social studies, and math.  While he has had a decent amount of algebra, he’s never had a formal science class except for one in 6th grade.  However, he passed the practice GED with no problems, meaning that he probably won’t even need to study before he can take the exam in a couple months.  He’s very happy about that because he doesn’t want to spend his time studying for that: he wants to study to take the macroeconomics CLEP instead.  The kid who doesn’t want to be bothered to make it to school on time will work his but off to study something he’s interested in.

I have a kid who is good at passing exams.  I don’t have a kid who is a conformist and understands the need to be places on time.  (Well, I think he understands…but he’s not going to make the effort unless he really cares about it.)  Unfortunately, I think his lack of conformity is going to hurt him a lot in life, probably more than his exam-taking ability will help him.  He’ll have an easy time earning his high school equivalency, but what good will this do him if he’s not going to be able to keep a job if he decides he’s not sufficiently interested in working?

I have also come to the realization that he really doesn’t need to know much math.  In fact, I think most people don’t.  Being a scientist, I use math day in and day out.  In my work as an engineer, I don’t use nearly as much math as you’d think.  In fact, like Roach said, I know a lot of people who don’t use math all that often.  A lot of those people are engineers.  A good chunk of engineering education involves teaching processes that invalidate the need for much higher level math.  Yes, a lot of it is a cookbook for boiling things down to high school algebra.  Now, the good engineers will have a conceptual understanding of what’s underlying those steps, and the really good engineers will understand it mathematically.  But realistically, most of what they learn in college, in terms of math, won’t be used.  And I say this as someone who is frustrated because I’ve had a lot of math and realize I’m forgetting much of it because I don’t use it.

Going back to the discussion on this emphasis toward pushing more math, science, and engineering hurting students, I’d have to say that there are a lot more kids like my son than people acknowledge.  Kids are going to be successful in life when they follow their passion.  I’ve seen kids who showed no motivation in classes go and learn the information taught in those classes because they wanted to work on something that required that information.  There is so much emphasis on establishing superiority in these academic areas (when we can’t even manage competency in most cases) that we’re not allowing kids a variety of experiences they need to find their interests.

Our education system provides no real motive for learning aside vague promises of getting a good job after high school.  I’m sure most students think that their job will be a lot like high school, which is probably not all that inspiring.  There is no real motivation for them to learn, their curiosity is damped, they’re never allowed to excel unless it’s in an area where our system is currently focusing.  And even then, bright kids are bored because they’re not really allowed to excel and dig into things on a deep level: they have to stay lock-step with kids who have no interest.

The whole ruse reminds me of Fahrenheit 451, where the whole society is distracted by notions of this or that trivial thing being important.  Our society is fixated on test scores and ‘competency’ in science and math and writing.  However, we’ve failed to pay attention to how and why kids really learn, and we’re delusional to think that competence in testing is the only indicator of who will succeed in life.

Of course, colleges will have you believe this, and there’s a huge industry surrounding making you believe that and providing you with more and more tests you’ll need to pass (for a sizable fee) despite the fact that grades are still the best predictor of college performance.  There’s also the politicians who are also convinced that this is the way to fix our country’s problems…most of whom benefit from the system as it is because their kids almost always end up as winners in the education race.  It also makes them look like they’re doing something substantial for education, which is why we have the No Child Left Behind legacy.

The gist of this is that most tests are assumed to be measuring things they aren’t measuring.  The SAT is not going to tell you if you are going to be successful in life.  It can’t even tell you that you are going to do well in college.  We are imbuing these tests with magical powers: they have become our Sorting Hat.  We believe in the magic of these exams to put people in some sort of ‘succeed at life’ or ‘fail at life’ category because it’s easier than looking at the realities of how our educational system is truly dysfunctional.

Testing: the bane of every student’s existence March 24, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, physics, teaching.
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I just read a press release explaining why people have such a discrepancy between what they think they know and how they can still have difficulty with recalling that information.  It was very interesting to read this because it explained something that has always been frustrating for me: how can I go into a test, thinking I know something, and then miss it?

The press release discussed a couple of experiments that show the following:

1) People associate ease of understanding with ease of recall.  In other words, they think that because something is easy to understand, they will be able to recall it later.

2) What really helps cement things into memory is repetition and struggling with difficult problems.

When I started high school, I had actually planned on going into linguistics, so I took a couple foreign languages.  I found that I didn’t have too many problems with these, but I know I spent a lot of time practicing and having friends quiz me on words.  I also spent a lot of my study time just reading literature or watching videos in those languages, which helped me reinforce what I knew.  There was more of a learning curve when, half-way through, I decided I wanted to do science, but it wasn’t bad.  I even recall finding a more intuitive method for a type of problem in my AP chem class, which my teacher had me explain to everyone, so you know I had to ace that test.

College wasn’t too bad, either.  While testing was pretty regular early on, a lot of the material in my lower-level classes was actually review from stuff I had in high school, so it wasn’t too hard.  When I got to my upper-level physics and math courses, the majority used take-home tests.  My profs were of the opinion that in-class exams weren’t a good assessment of what we’d learned.  Usually exams consisted of problems that were like very difficult homework problems.  Given I’m generally good at figuring things out when not under pressure, this worked well for me.  (And generally, these are the types of skills that, in my experience, have a good bearing on your research abilities.)

Then I went into engineering and started having problems.  No take-home exams.  I was particularly upset after one exam, so I talked to my advisor.  My advisor said that he’d run into the same thing when he started in electrical engineering.  You see, his undergraduate degree was in math education, so he took lots of education and math.  I can’t say much about education, but the focus in math was very similar to what it was in physics.  He told me that the best way to study was to sit down with a problem and redo it.  Then redo it again…and when I could redo it without thinking, I would be set.  He was right.  I spent a lot more time working and reworking example textbook problems and homework problems, and tests became a lot less scary.

After reading this article, I guess it makes a lot more sense now.  I used to think that once I’d solved a problem, I should remember it.  I guess I was pretty lucky because, for the most part, I could remember after one or two repetitions, which only reinforced that view.  Of course, I later became unlucky because I didn’t really know how to study when I got to my MS.  Even if I could recall the process, it was often too slow to demonstrate on a test.  Fortunately, I had a good advisor who was able to help me through it.  Given I’ve seen this with my own students, I plan to pass on this information.

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