Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bill Gates on curious kids

Fast Company's Anya Kamenetz interviewed Bill Gates for the most recent issue of the magazine. In it, Gates touches on ideas for boosting teacher skills, MOOCs, and the like.

But I thought Gifted Exchange readers might find this part most interesting. Kamenetz posed this question: "You've said that when you were in high school, you followed your own interests, taking on independent study, working on computer programming day and night. Is there room for that kind of student-driven learning in a highly rigorous, metrics-based environment?"

Gates answered that "People who are as curious as I am will be fine in any system. For the self-motivated student, these are the golden days. I wish I was growing up now. I envy my son. If he and I are talking about something that we don't understand, we just watch videos and click on articles, and that feeds our discussion. Unfortunately, the highly curious student is a small percentage of the kids."

What do you think of this? Will the brilliant and curious do well under any system? Are these the golden days for self-motivated students?

On one hand, there certainly are a lot of resources now, available online for anyone. If you're interested in learning advanced math, nothing is stopping you from watching Khan Academy for hours. My 5-year-old son is really into maps right now, and he's been studying Google maps, sometimes announcing how many miles it is between two random destinations, and exactly how long that will take by car, mass transit, or foot.

But I'm not sure that schooling is in a golden age for the curious. As Gates points out, the campaign to measure what kids are learning is not a bad thing. But some schools, obsessed with pass rates on grade level standardized tests, have decided that kids who easily meet the bar don't deserve any attention. One way to close the achievement gap is to lower the ceiling, rather than raise the floor.

What do you think? Are these the golden days for self-motivated, curious students?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Is ability grouping back?

A few weeks ago, the Brown Center released its report on education called "How well are American students learning?" This report looks in particular at the practice of ability grouping in 4th grade, and the acceleration of students into advanced math in 8th grade. The campaign to "detrack" schools -- vocal, if nothing else -- pushed the decreased use of grouping in early grades, and the idea that as many students as possible should take algebra in 8th grade. Some previous writings have labeled algebra as a "gatekeeper" course, and the idea is that if kids took the course in 8th grade, they'd then be able to fit all of college prep math into high school. Kids who didn't take algebra in 8th grade risked forever being left behind.

While grouping became something of a dirty word in educational circles, it never disappeared. According to the report, in 1998, 28% of fourth grade teachers were grouping students by ability for reading. Some 33% used some other grouping (like "interest") and 29% did not do grouping.

Now, it seems, ability grouping is experiencing a resurgence. In 2009, 71% of fourth grade teachers reported grouping for reading by ability, with 21% reporting some other kind of grouping and only 8% not grouping.

It's interesting to ponder why that might be. Between 1998 and 2009 there was increased emphasis on reading test scores. There have been small increases in reading scores in benchmarked assessments over this time. Certainly, teachers asked a few years ago about teaching mixed ability classes were quite likely to report that classes were so heterogeneous that they couldn't teach effectively. Grouping -- whether it is treated as an educational no-no or not -- may be done simply as a practicality. Theory is nice, but how do you actually help kids learn? You give them material matched to their level of preparation. How do you do that? You group by ability.

As for 8th grade algebra, the Brown Center reports that states with widespread acceleration into 8th grade do not do better on the NAEP than states that don't push as many 8th graders as possible into algebra. Earlier claims that algebra was a gatekeeper course suffered a bit from the correlation/causation problem. Stronger math students selected into 8th grade algebra, and these students were more likely to take and succeed in college prep math in high school. Students who wouldn't have selected into algebra in the past did not magically become stronger students by taking it.

It's an interesting report in general. What it reminds the reader is that moving the needle on education -- an undertaking that involves millions of students with very different backgrounds -- is hard. Various simple solutions (get rid of grouping! put kids in algebra in 8th grade!) can not, by themselves, change much.

Why do you think ability grouping is back?

Friday, April 05, 2013

Toy Story and blended learning

We spent spring break in DisneyWorld. We did this last year and had so much fun that we went again (thanks to my very generous mother-in-law).

One of the few "big" rides that we didn't do in 2012 was Toy Story in Disney's Hollywood Studios. When we showed up in 2012, the line was 2 hours long and the FastPasses (Disney's way you can commit to a specific time and skip the line) were gone for the day.

So this year I vowed to do it. We showed up at the park early, and got our FastPasses (which were already for mid-afternoon!) The line was already 90 minutes and would soon stretch to 180. Of course, when I saw that, I was definitely intrigued. What is it that makes this ride so fun?

The answer is that it's a combination of carnival games (think shooting at things that pop up) and video games. You spin in a little cart to the front of a screen, and start aiming your little toy gun at the bullseyes and such. You get points, which you can see on your cart, plus your accuracy rating and (good for competitive sorts) what your family members in the same cart are scoring.

This instant feedback is not only helpful in improving skill -- I realized that by slowing down and aiming I could do better on points and get a 58% accuracy rating -- it's kind of addictive. It's fun. That's why kids love to play video games. You know instantly how you're doing, and that instant feedback becomes a game. You're challenged and developing skills.

I've been thinking about that topic a lot lately as the Philanthropy Roundtable just released my short book called Blended Learning. While primarily aimed at philanthropists and people who work at foundations, the book gives an overview of the topic for general audiences, too. Blended learning might also be called "tech assisted teaching." The idea -- at least in the perfect form of it -- is that computers can gamify the rote learning of skills that is part of education. While part of education is about deep, critical thinking, you need to develop competence at certain skills in order to have space for higher-order thoughts. If you can read with ease, you can ask deep questions about the text. To learn to read with ease, you need to practice, and figure out what you're getting right and wrong. A computer can help with that. Likewise, math involves all sorts of skills that can be practiced (the reason teachers have long assigned problem sets). Why not have adaptive games that make this more fun?

The hope is that this frees up teacher time to tutor children, and the adaptive software challenges children to the extent of their abilities. There are few places doing this today, but the technology is getting better, and some places (which I write about in the book) are trying.

Anyway, the book is a free download if you're interested in checking it out. I've discovered that the more I blog, which has some instant feedback aspects associated with it, the more clear the logical order of an essay appears to me in drafts. That cuts down on the number of drafts I need to do.

Do your kids like educational software games?