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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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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Ad Hominem is Not a Synonym for Insult

For the last several years, probably coincident with the increase in online forums and comments, I have noticed that the general public seems quite confused as to what ad hominem really means.  In many cases, someone who flings an insult is immediately accused of committing ad hominem, while ad hominem without including an insult is often not even recognized as being ad hominem.

The purpose of ad hominen is to misdirect attention from the logic of the argument to the qualifications of the person making the argument.  Specifically, ad homimem intends to disqualify its target. Ad hominen is a tactic of last resort when the logic of the argument seems otherwise unassailable.  In fact, if someone throws ad hominem at you, they have tacitly admitted to losing the debate. Ad hominem is used against the argument of a specific person as a misdirection from the logic of the argument to the character of the person. Ad hominem is usually used when someone has no logical answer to the argument itself. Someone who uses  ad hominem  hopes the target will be distracted from the issue at hand, take it personally, and engage in self-defense, thereby entirely forgetting about the argument that they have already won.

I saw an example of a fascinating variation of the misunderstanding of ad hominem in an online discussion about California issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.  The local newspaper had headlined their story,  Illegals line up for driver's licenses.

Many people responded indignantly that “illegal” cannot be used as noun because human beings themselves are not illegal, only their actions.  One speaker who I will call “student” asserted that since the headline was ad hominem directed to a group; therefore none of the individuals who objected had standing, that only the group being called “illegals” had the right to object to the use of that ad hominem.  Another speaker who I will call “teacher” responded that the word “illegals” as used in the headline might be an insult, but it was not ad hominem.  The conversation continued:

Student:  Ad hominem is an attack on character, rather than an attack on the argument presented. An ad hominem attack on a group is an attack on the character of members of the group.

Teacher: Your definition of ad hominem is incomplete. "Ad hominem is an attack on character, rather than an attack on the argument presented" in an effort to debunk the argument as if the character of the person is relevant to the argument.  Ad hominem is a LOGICAL FALLACY, usually employing personal attack on character, intelligence, status, etc   Personal attacks are not necessarily ad hominem. How can I make it clear? If you are mugged, you have been physically attacked. If someone drives by and hurls a slur, you have been verbally attacked, but these are not examples of ad hominem because the attack is not in the context of making an argument.  Thus many people objected to characterizing a group of human beings as "illegals," but those who committed the grievance are not actually engaging in ad hominem against the group so characterized.

If a group of illegal immigrants were engaged in a discussion with others about whatever, and one of those others said,"You guys are illegals, so your argument is thereby refuted," that would be an instance of ad hominem. Insults often accompany ad hominem, but insults themselves are not necessarily ad hominem.

Student:  How can I make it clear? - you can't; you're wrong. Ad hominem - you attacked your opponents's character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine their argument. References to people as members of a lawbreaking class is an attack on their character.

Teacher:  Calling illegal immigrants "illegals" is an attack on character. It is not an attempt to undermine an argument; it is just an attack on character, like calling the guy who blew through a red light an "idiot." There is no undermining of an argument.

Student: The basis of the argument was giving undocumented people California drivers licenses.

Teacher: In order for ‘illegals” to be ad hominem against illegal immigrants, the illegal immigrants themselves would have to be asserting the reason why California should give them driver’s licenses.  However in this case, other people who are not necessarily illegal immigrants are engaging in argumentation about the issue.

Student: argument: "a set of diverging or opposite views, 2) a reason or set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong." The action is giving undocumented residents California drivers licenses, as I said.

Teacher: The purpose of ad hominem is to deny someone status or qualification to engage in discussion. For example, to attempt to refute an argument by calling the proponent "a moron" is simply a way of saying that the person is too stupid to listen to. Or if a civilian gave an opinion about the military, someone might say, "How can you have an opinion if you never served in the military?" in order to disqualify the civilian’s opinion from consideration. Both of these are ad hominem, but only the first one adds an insult.  An "action" regarding California drivers licenses was taken, but the action is actually irrelevant to the question under consideration: Is labeling an illegal alien "illegal" ad hominem? It was not ad hominem, but according to those who took offense, it was an insult.

Here is a link to one California drivers license debate:

The pro side includes a group called The Mexican American Legal Defence and Educational Fund (MALDEF). If someone wanted to commit ad hominem against MALDEF, they would probably say, "Of course, you support them. The illegals are your own compatriots." This would be ad hominem against a group, MALDEF, but it is not an insult toward MALDEF.  It is also NOT ad hominem against illegal aliens because MALDEF is making the argument, not illegal aliens.

If a group of illegal aliens presented their opinion, a non-insulting ad hominem might be, "You are illegal aliens, so you have no right to give an opinion about California’s laws."   Their status as illegal aliens is a statement of fact.  Whether their status disqualifies them from comment is a separate issue.  An insulting ad hominem would be, "You are a bunch of wetbacks, so your opinions do not count," or in the view of some, "You are a bunch of illegals, so your opinions do not count."

I am finding online comments as repository of data on human nature really fascinating these days.  It is interesting see that some people, like this "teacher," target their comments to the readership rather to the person they are nominally responding to.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Are Teachers Fast-Food Purveyors or Professionals?

I have been following an online discussion.  (Scratch that, what do you call it when one of the parties constantly responds with insults).  The topic is supposedly the public sector pensions of teachers.  “SP” is trying to argue that teachers are overpaid for the amount of work they do. The respondent never identifies himself as such,  but I would guess he probably is a teacher, so I’ll call him “Teacher.”*  If “SP” accurately reflects the public perception of the work teachers do, it is no wonder there is zero respect for teachers in our society.

SP: Teachers, as I pointed out, are paid a FULL year wage, for a part time job.

Teacher: As I have repeatedly pointed out, teaching is far from a part-time job. But you already know that. SP: The teaching contract proves my assertion.  Teachers work 37 weeks per year at a contracted 36 hour work week.

Teacher: Teachers work far in excess of their contracted hours and weeks.

SP:  All you do is make up lies about what hours teachers work, and it is 36 hours per week.  Truth can be painful for the trough feeder with entitlement mentality!

Teacher:  Regardless of the minimums that may be in a contract, no teacher limits themselves to the so called contract.  Teachers do not work part-time. In fact, one big reason new teachers quit in the first five years is they are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of out-of-class work that is necessary. What is true that they can save child care expenses because they have to do so much of the work at home.

SP:  Your incompetence is breathtaking! Nobody works more than their contracted hours.  The teachers union would never allow it.

Teacher: Teachers do not work part-time. That is the fact.  You are under some mistaken impression that the only time they work is during face-time with students? Such a misconception is prima facie ludicrous. SP:  Teachers work 6 hours per school day, even if they took home 2 hours of work they would still just be at 8 hours total. They do NOT take home 2 hours of work per day though.  Teachers work part time, that is a fact. Just keep making up the whoppers though, easy to shoot down.  36 hour work week, 37 week work year= part time job.

Teacher:  There is no way teachers can get all the work done they are responsible for during a six hour day. 

SP:  I know many teachers working 36 hours per week Some work even less. Teachers are NOT onsite at their schools for 8 hours per day unless you include the lunch break. They teach 5 hours per day plus a prep period of an hour, prep periods are used for grading papers and so forth.

Teacher (evidently losing patience):  If you think that one-hour prep period is sufficient for getting all the work done, you know nothing. That one hour  is a woefully insufficient amount of time.  Your anecdotal "I know many teachers..." is worthless. You really need to stop talking until you have spent a year getting some real-world experience. Try subbing for a year. Even volunteering as a classroom aide would change your tune.

SP:  No matter what you say, teachers work only part-time.

Teacher:  You would be screaming your head off if teachers actually worked a 36 hour work week for 37 weeks per year. They would do nothing but babysit kids. There would be no time for preparing lessons, making materials, previewing the audio-visuals, testing labs before kids do them, grading papers, calculating report cards, keeping up on professional literature, writing tests and so much more.  What do you think?  Should teachers work as long as it takes to complete all those listed tasks or should teachers work work the so-called "contracted" hours and no more?

SP:  You said, “There would be no time for preparing lessons, making materials, previewing the audio-visuals, testing labs before kids do them, grading papers, calculating report cards, keeping up on professional literature, writing tests and so much more.”  Lesson plans are prepared very infrequently, in fact you could use the same lesson plans throughout your entire career in many areas. Most school districts today have "lesson plan banks" that teachers use and share. You can also BUY lesson plans already made. Grading papers is done in the prep period. Calculating report cards should not be an issue and should also be done in the prep period. Keeping up on professional literature? That is not a job requirement and is also not mandated; it should be done on the teachers OWN time as it relates specifically to their job, it is basically optional "continuing education" required for the license. And professional development days, aka "minimum days", are given multiple times during the year at the expense of the student, so you lose that one. Writing "tests"?? Do you mean developing tests? They are part of lesson plans and curriculum, and again that is an issue that should not be repeated more than once every 2-3 years if that often.  The work load is a part-time 36 hour work week and a part time 37 week work year. Those are the contracted "work loads." I guess you just lost again.

Teacher: You clearly know nothing about being a teacher. Excellent teachers use off-the shelf stuff merely as a reference.  You would be even more unhappy with education outcomes if teacher used the off-the-shelf stuff in the manner you seem to believe they should.
Again I suggest you spend a year being a substitute teacher or even a classroom aide before you say another word about the work teachers do. Don't worry; I'll wait.

SP is evidently under the misconception that repeating a falsity often enough, through some sort of mysterious alchemy, will render that falsehood true. SP is also under the impression that a teaching job is more like a fast food job than anything else in the world of work.  How is it even possible to break through that wall of stubbornness against true facts?  Until our society decides whether teachers are professionals or hired laborers, it will be impossible to effect any meaningful education reform.

Teachers as professionals implies professional standards for entry into the profession, professional autonomy, professional judgment, professional salaries and the tenure to be free of whimsical termination.  Teachers as hired laborers implies strict conformity to the contracted hours, so-called “teacher-proof” curriculum, top-down job instructions and easy firing.  The strange hybrid status teachers have now is unsustainable.

*I camouflaged the user names of the parties.  I also cleaned up the grammar, and spelling of the comments and edited them a little bit for clarity.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Most American Math Teachers Cannot Teach Math

...because they studied non-math in school, not math. (And most of the rest of us have the same problem.)

I read Dr. Nancy Pine's book, Educating Young Giants, with great interest. The book is about her observation of classes in China, her discussions with Chinese teachers and parents (mostly through interpreters), and the comparisons she makes to American education. She admits to being ethnocentric at the time of her first visit to China in 1989, but while she could sometimes recognize her own egocentricity, she was not able to fully overcome it.

She noticed that in Chinese literature classes, teachers emphasized close reading and digging for the author's meaning. She felt that Chinese teachers denied students the opportunity to create personal meaning from the literature they read. Although her research in China centered on elementary literacy development, as a former math major (page 41), she became interested in observing elementary math classes. As everyone who has ever observed Chinese math classes has reported (see, for a few of many examples, Harold Stevenson, James Stigler, Liping Ma), she, too, witnessed superior teaching skill.

I have been teaching math in China for the last several years, and I taught in Japan for nearly two decades. I speak both Japanese and Mandarin. My conversations with people from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as written descriptions such as Educating Young Giants has led me to conclude that the actual education systems as well as the cultural foundations of both China and Japan are very similar.

Nancy Pine came to appreciate that Chinese teachers teach mathematics, but “most U.S. teachers merely teach arithmetic” (page 45). Dr. Pine is being generous. U.S. teachers teach non-math, specifically routines, tricks and shortcuts, but call it math on the misconception that if numbers are running around, it must be math.

Chinese teachers spend a significant amount of time considering a relatively simple math problem from every conceivable angle. The students probably already know the “answer” and that is precisely the advantage of using an easy problem. Because they already know the outcome, they can concentrate on the process, the concept-building. Once the concept is solid, their homework includes problems that American students eventually spiral to. China thereby reduces the need for the endless review so common in America.*

Dr. Pine herself admitted “that even with my strong interest in math, I would not have known enough about the underlying mathematical concepts to think through the best ways to present the initial problem that would enable students to correctly solve more complex ones” (page 45). See what she is saying? She is admitting that she was great at non-math, but weak at mathematics itself. Not only that, she says she knows “that most American grade-school teachers, who teach five or more subjects, do not have the depth of knowledge to walk children through mathematical concepts to prevent misunderstandings” (page 50).

She believes it is because American teachers are generalists who must teach every subject, while Chinese teachers are specialists who teach only one subject. I would like to suggest that being a generalist or a specialist has nothing to do with it. Chinese teachers could be generalists and their ability to teach math would still “far surpass ours” (page 46) because nearly all Chinese teachers, regardless of their particular specialty, acquired a profound understanding of fundamental mathematics (PUFM, a term coined by Liping Ma) beginning in the primary grades. If our own children acquired PUFM, they would also be much more effective math teachers, even as generalists.

You see, regardless of professional training or subject matter courses, teachers tend to teach the way they were taught. The strident calls for teachers to take more subject matter courses is misplaced. Simply learning more and more non-math will not improve teaching ability. Okay, how about we reteach math at the university level? I tried to do exactly that, only to meet with terrible resistance. “We don't want to know why the math works,” my students complained, “Just tell us how to get the answer.” Fine, let's at least teach those students who aspire to become elementary teachers. Guess what? Most universities require all elementary teaching candidates to pass a series of courses entitled something like “math for elementary teachers.” My students complained that the classes were a waste of their time, since they “had learned all that stuff in elementary school.” Most elementary teachers, even though compelled to take a real math class, most of them for the first time in their lives, end up graduating from college without learning much math due to their resistance. They subsequently teach math the way they were taught in elementary school.

The main reason that Chinese students do so well in international math tests is because they actually learn math in school. American do not. Therefore, the reasons critics cite (specially selected students, lower poverty rates, rote learning, etc) miss the point. What critics are saying is that due to circumstances beyond our control, American students can never compete with Chinese students. I call baloney. If we would actually teach math in our schools, our students could compete just fine.

Next: examples of non-math teaching I encountered in a child's algebra class.

After seeming to correctly solve a number of simplification problems of the form -(ax-b) or -(ax+b), a child complained she could not simplify this one: +(ax+b). “What do I do with all those plus signs?” she wailed. What did you do with the other ones? I flipped them (referring to a mat-and-tile manipulative she is using in class). Even after all that flipping, she still had no idea what was going on. As long as she flips correctly, she can get the right answer without ever understanding how the flipping was supposed to communicate the concept. (Here is another topic: how American teachers routine take great resources like manipulatives and use them ineffectively

In another example, the child needed to solve for x by first combining +2 + ¼, easy—the answer is 2¼. But the next problem was +3 –  -½. She wrote 3-½ as her answer, then complained because the problem was coming out “all weird.” I straightened that one out with her, only to have her evaluate the next problem, -2+ 2/3, as -2 2/3.

Dr. Pine realized that the depth of Chinese math learning far surpassed ours. Yet she seemed unable to perceive that the digging for meaning she observed in literacy classes was precisely the same digging for meaning evident in math classes*. She lauded it in math but lamented it in literacy, saying that teachers denied Chinese children the expression of their own personal opinions.

* Everywhere I wrote an asterisk I am referring to the Chinese philosophy of math education as evidenced by the textbook presentation of concepts and the implementation I and others have observed  in many Chinese classrooms.  HOWEVER, honesty compels me to relate that there are a number of  Chinese math teachers whose delivery of math concepts is at best cursory.  These teachers also assign an overwhelming amount of homework and "practice tests."  These teachers have been know to "steal" time for "unimportant" subjects like art and music for more practice tests in their never-ending quest to maximize test scores regardless of understanding. This approach is absolutely murderous to the spirit and curiosity of Chinese students.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Expert Teachers Fall Through Alternative Certification Cracks

Critics of alternative certification often express dismay that alternative certification could possible qualify someone who has no prior teaching experience.

“I am still waiting for the "alternative certification" programs in law, medicine, surgery, and pharmacy. I hear that those fields pay more than teaching, so I think that I might try my hand at one of those. Should only take 6 weeks or so to get through the program and be proclaimed "highly qualified" and I can get right to work on heart surgery, or filling prescriptions.

See? Sounds ludicrous now, does it not?”

It is a valid criticism, but assumes that all who seek alternative certification are starting from scratch. Not so.  Expert teachers moving to another state for whatever reason often have difficulty getting recertified. 

If you were a Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DODDS) teacher, returning from overseas may mean coming home to chronic unemployment.  For example, back in the 1980s DODDS began requiring all its teachers to take National Teacher Exams (NTE) regardless of how long a teacher had been effectively teaching. 

But in the US, these DODDS teachers found that many states would not accept NTE scores no matter how high the teacher's percentile score.  Nor would the states accept other documentation of competence like evaluation, publications, even student test scores on the Stanford 9, or anything else.  Some states even told these teachers they would have to get new masters degrees because their "old" one was now out-of-date, as if a terminal degree can expire. 

Many older teachers began teaching before student teaching became a requirement.  Some states will allow letters certifying experience to stand in for the student teaching requirement as long as the letters are not too old.  A teacher may be able to acquire a "provisional" teaching credential convertible to a standard credential if the teacher gets a K-12 job within two years.

The longest allowable letter of experience interval I saw was five years.  Most are three years.  But since schools will not  hire even certified older out-of-district teachers, they certainly will not even look at you if you are not certified.  They may apologize for not hiring a certified teacher due to budget, but if you are uncertified, they are happy to reject you without any apology.  Two years pass and the provisional credential expires.  One more year and the letters of experience are no good.

Plenty of great teachers are waiting tables, filing medical charts, preparing taxes, whatever.