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The Great Fire Wall of China

As my regular readers know, I am writing from China these days, and have been doing so four years so far. Sometimes the blog becomes inaccessible to me, making it impossible to post regularly. In fact, starting in late September 2014, China began interfering with many Google-owned entities of which Blogspot is one. If the blog seems to go dark for a while, please know I will be back as soon as I can get in again. I am sometimes blocked for many weeks at a time. I hope to have a new post up soon if I can gain access. Thank you for your understanding and loyalty.

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Friday, November 23, 2012

True, Authentic, Real Life Math Problem of an Eighth Grader

A certain student had recently missed much of the first quarter, so her band teacher did not count those weeks when figuring the credit for the weekly practice logs. Therefore, the student had only five weeks worth of practice log grades for the quarter whereas her classmates had ten weeks worth. She got 100% for each of the first three weeks she was back. When her report card came, she was shocked that she had a C. She thought she had an A in the bag.

Looking back at her practice log grades, she saw 100, 100, 100, 70, 0. “I forgot to turn in last week's practice log,” she explained. BUT, she knew how to figure averages, and when she did, she got 74%. “Ah, so there's the C,” she said.

Then she asked me, “How many minutes will I have to practice to bring my grade back to an A by next week?” True to form, I irritated her by telling her to figure it out. A real life math problem was staring her in the face. She had been wondering if there was such a thing as a real life math problem. “How do I do that?” she wailed. I told her to think about what she already knows and what she needs to know.

Her train of reasoning: One more week means I will have six total weeks of practice log grades. To average 100%, I will need 600 total minutes. I have 370 minutes. So I need 230 more minutes. I will need to practice 230 minutes this week. (An aside: I wonder if my teacher will give credit for so many minutes in one week). My practice log is due on Friday, so I have six days to practice 230 minutes.

So far, so good, but then her reasoning began to go awry. She divided 230 by 60, and got 5.5 on a calculator. She did not question the result. We need to teach students to determine the neighborhood of the result before doing any actual computation. I do not like to call this process “estimation,” because almost all kids have reduced estimation to mere rounding, and nothing more. Most kids tolerate estimation lessons at school, but basically tune them out because they have been socialized to value answer-getting techniques. Estimation does not, in their minds, yield “answers.”

(Now I have to explain that during this whole process, I was busy with my own work, so I was only seeing pieces intermittently, as she showed them to me. She showed me the calculator with the 5.5 in the display, which at this point was all I knew. I reconstructed her train of reasoning later from her comments).

I asked, “What does 5.5 mean?” She said, “5 hours and 50 minutes.” Remember, this student has all As in math, but as I have explained before, much of math in schools is misnamed. It is really non-math, but since schools call it math, students believe it is math, and if they get good grades in non-math, they believe they are good at math.

I probed, “How did you get that?” She looked at me like, well duh, isn't it obvious and said a little too loudly, “5.5 is 5 hours and 50 minutes.” Then turning away, she poked something into her calculator.

“How do I round this?” she asked. The display showed 0.9166666.

“You have asked the question wrong. No one can answer your question the way you asked it. You need to specify what place you want to round it to.”

“The thousandth's place. So 0.917.”

“That's right. But what are you counting?”

She pondered a moment and wrote 0.92.

“And what is that?” “Minutes,” she said, and wrote 92.

“How did you get that?”

“I need minutes, so I moved the decimal point.”

“'I moved the decimal point' is never a mathematical explanation for anything. You need to give a mathematical reason for the math you do. What did you do to get 0.92 in the first place?”

“I divided 5.5 by 6 to get the number of minutes I need to practice everyday. 0.92 minutes doesn't make sense so I need to move the decimal to get a number that makes sense.” (With this kind of reasoning, is it any wonder our students are so poor at math? And if they use the same faulty reasoning for any of life's other problems, no wonder decision-making ability is also poor. When they become adults, they are easily scammed by poor reasoning that sounds good to them).

She has three main problems:

1. Using disembodied numbers

Teachers have allowed her and her classmates to disembody numbers since first grade. What I mean is students have been trained to compute with only the numbers and attach the units to the result later. When students do that, they attach the unit they want, not the unit their computation produces. What she should have done is written 5.5 hours = 0.92 hours/day. Her unit was “hours/day.” However, since she was looking for minutes, she did the math the way so many students (and adults) do: 5.5/6 = 0.92 minutes.

2. Mixing bases

She did not realize that decimals numbers are base 10, and clock numbers are NOT base 10. I set up some place value columns for decimal numbers, and another set of columns for clock numbers. Then we did some counting so that she could see how numbers end up in the columns they do. First, we counted decimally, that is, in base ten. Then we counted time. As our paper time clock ticked over 59 in the minutes column to 1 in the hour column and 0 in the minutes column, she exclaimed, “Oh, base 60, like the Incas.” She could tell me that 0.5 = 50/100 = 50%, but still insisted that 5.5 hours = 5 hours and 50 minutes. She realized that she was looking for 50% of 60 minutes, but insisted she should divide 50% by 60. Eventually, understanding dawned. She realized that since 50% means half, then half of an hour is 30 minutes, so 5.5 hours means 5 hours 30 minutes. (My own work had come to a complete standstill long before). “So 'of' means multiply, right?”

3. Misunderstanding “Decimal Number”

She thinks, like so many kids do, that a decimal number is a number with a decimal point. Just take out the decimal point and presto, changeo, it is not a decimal number anymore. What else do we expect when we teach kids tricks,shortcuts and blind procedures,and call this strange conglomerate "math?"

In quite East Asian style, we had spent over an hour on this one problem. Eventually, she determined that (leaving aside the original calculator error), she actually had gotten her answer way back at 0.92 hours/day. She realized that the math had “spoken” to her if she had only thought about it correctly. What the math said was that she would need to practice a little less than an hour a day. She never noticed the calculator error, and I did not point it out.


She practiced 60 minutes (in 30 minute increments) three days in a row. Then it occurred to her that if she practiced 60 minutes per day for 6 days, her total would be 360 minutes, not the 240 minutes she was expecting. She has not practiced for two days, but plans to practice 60 minutes on the sixth day. She got a real-life lesson in checking the math by plugging the solution back into the original problem, a step her teacher requires, but she resents as a time waster. We talked about that maybe her teacher really does have some wisdom in her requirements. She also admitted that her goal is to do the minimum necessary to secure an A. Excellence and doing one's best is just adult yadayada. At least her bar is set at A.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Tricks and Shortcuts vs. Mathematics

The issue is not whether algebra should be taught in the eighth grade or later. The issue is not whether local schools should be able to make their own textbook adoption decisions. The issue is about how easily states make big changes based on flimsy research which asks the wrong questions, only to backtrack later because solutions that solve the wrong problem do not work. California reverted to phonics in 1995 after abandoning it for a faulty implementation of whole language based on research that answered some questions, but not the questions that matter.

The emphasis on algebra in the eighth grade is misplaced when even students with good math grades enter algebra weak in math concepts. I am working with an A student now who is solving for x in problems involving mixed numbers. She wrote these "computations:" 2 + ¼ = 2¼, 3 + (- ¾) = 3-¾, and -2 + ½ = -2½. Do you see the pattern? In her mind, numbers are disembodied entities with no real meaning. She thinks all she has to do is take out the plus sign and push the fraction up against the whole number.

These silly errors happen in an education system where children have been taught tricks and shortcuts since first grade. The problem is teachers call tricks and shortcuts "math," and when children do well on a test of tricks and shortcuts, they learn their good grade is proof they understand math. Actually the grade proves only that they can reliably implement tricks and shortcuts.

I have worked with children who have terrible math anxiety because they do not do well with the tricks and shortcuts. Some part of their mind has rejected the tricks and shortcuts as not making sense, so "math" does not make sense. If they ever get a chance to acquire true number sense, then they find out they are good at math after all.

Sometimes we reward unthinking compliance (as when kids memorize the tricks and shortcuts) and punish the thinkers for whom the tricks and shortcuts do not make mathematical sense.

Friday, November 2, 2012

American Education is NOT Failing....

...In fact, it accomplishes its hidden curriculum perfectly, according to Danjo1987, who hits several out of the park his first day up to bat on EdWeek forums. hllnwlz wound up the pitch and effectively makes many of the same points.

If you have been following this blog, you know that last year I am the "parent" (from the school's point of view) for a particular child who is now an eighth grader. My kids are grown; still it has been instructive to observe her schoolwork and communicate with a school as a savvy teacher/parent. I have been reminded once again that schools really do not like interacting with savvy parents. When schools say they want parent involvement, what they usually mean is they want parents to bake cupcakes once in a while and make sure the student does the homework everyday. More than that, and you are stigmatized as a "helicopter parent."

Overall, the girl's teachers seem to be competent;a couple strike me as excellent. There is one teacher I simply cannot fathom. On the midterm progress report, this teacher gave this straight-A student a citizenship grade of "N" for "excessive absences" during a medical leave. Upon her return to class, she took a "diagnostic" test and got a "D." This is the student's only grade for the class, and the grade teacher put on the progress report. (The other teachers gave her "I" for incomplete).

For the past five weeks, apparently this teacher has done nothing gradable in class. At the close of the term last Friday, there was only one grade in the online system the school uses: that "D." The student's grade on the report card? C-. I am about to intervene.

Meanwhile, in her other classes, she often brings home homework that astound me with the easiness and triviality of it. I see the kind of homework I used to get as a second or third grader. For example, she has to write a little essay about a short story they read in English class. The first assignment is to analyze the writing prompt, write down the verbs that tell what the student is to do, etc. In eighth grade? And the requirements for the regular notebook checks are beyond ridiculous, but the school feels if they do not force the students to organize, none of them will. Apparently, they did not learn how to collect and organize their work in elementary school. The only reason she writes both her first and last name on papers is because I insisted she write a complete heading on each paper whether the teacher required it or not. "But I am the only one with my name," she complained. Does not matter.

What I see is a disjointed and inconsistent system characterized by low expectations, even as the adults give inordinate emphasis to test scores.