Archive for the 'Education' Category

The Depressing State of Science Curricula

Looking at science for early elementary (home) school is depressing, and not just because of religious conflicts. This time, it’s just plain old “not knowing the equations”. And really to be fair to the curriculum that we’re using, the errors are all over the internets too, even in some otherwise reasonable references. (And to be fair, there are some that really get it right). What am I so annoyed at?

The speed of sound does not vary based on how close together atoms are. It depends on the stiffness of the material and the density. (the equation is of the form v= sqrt(k/m), where there are various versions of the stiffness, depending on if it’s a gas, liquid, or solid).

Counter example #1: Ice vs water.

Ice floats, so it’s less dense than water (atoms are farther apart), but the molecular bonds are stronger. If the speed of sound was faster when atoms were closer together, then the speed of sound in water would be higher than in ice. But the speed of sound in ice is roughly twice that in water, 3000m/s vs 1400m/s.

Counter example #2. Helium Balloons, inhaled

The molecules in a breath of helium are just as far apart as the molecules of ‘air’, as long as they’re at the same temperature and pressure. The helium is just far lighter and the molecules are going far faster. If you were predicting based on the proximity of the atoms, then you’d expect the speed of sound to remain the same. It’s not, it’s about 3x faster in helium, and so your voice shifts up.

Stiffness and density, vs “how far apart are the atoms”. I’d say that stiffness and density are actually two things that kids can relate to, or at least better than than the distance between something that they can’t see or visualize.

So, what are we to do? Explain it, and demonstrate something else. The speed of beans in sound.

What you’re not hearing here is the end of the 1812 overture, with digital cannons, as played through a subwoofer covered with beans. Click to hear…

No comments

Sent to my State Representatives

The background: On the 23rd, the the 2010 supplement to the 2009-2011 omnibus budget bill went into conference, with a line item that removes support for all schools like the Whidbey Island Academy for grades K-6. This will be discussed in committee on the 26th, and probably from there go to the floor. There’s no doubt that the state is in a budget crunch, but the way to solve that is not to push kids out of the public school system.

UPDATE — I’ve now heard from two of my three State Reps/Senator, and this has been reversed in committee. So funding is restored, at least for now. Apparently they heard from quite a lot of us.

I am writing to request your support for continued funding for Alternative Learning Experience programs to be preserved in the K-6 age range in the 2010-2011 school year budget. (Agency 350, Program 021, 2010 Policy Non-Comp Changes: 1. K-6 ALE Programs)

My son is a kindergarten student in a k-5 class in an ALE program, The Whidbey Island Academy, run by the South Whidbey School District. The Whidbey Island Academy is a parent partnered program that promotes strong interaction and cooperative learning between the student, parent, and the school teacher. This promotes one of the strongest factors in determining student performance: parental involvement in the child’s learning.

This program has performed incredibly well to teach him the basis for what he will need to develop and prosper as a student and as a productive adult. In the past 6 months, he has progressed from nearly no reading skill to reading at the second grade level and beyond. His math skills have similarly progressed well into the first grade level. Some of this is due to the instruction in the classroom, and some is due to the work that we have put in as parents. His work in the classroom tracks his progress at home, so he is not spinning his wheels in school with material that he has already mastered. Each student in the class is able to work at their own level and pace. Where he is ahead of classmates, he helps them learn in the class. Likewise, the older and more advanced students help him where they are stronger. Teaching other children is a very effective learning technique. This mix of abilities and ages in his classroom is not available in the main public school system.

Cutting funding for the ALE program will drive some students to the public schools, which may not be a good fit for those children. The projected savings from cutting the ALE programs assumes that 75% of current K-6 ALE students will turn to full-time homeschooling. While driving students out of the schools and into the home does save money, it’s not good policy. In fact, it is in direct contradiction to the recent State Supreme Court decision which states in part:

“This court is left with no doubt that under the state’s current financing system the state is failing in its constitutional duty to make ample for provision for the education of all children.”

Either way, it will be harder for these students to get the sort of customized instruction and support that they need to excel. This is not the sort of penny wise, pound foolish action that we should promote.

Please restore funding for K-6 Alternative Learning Experience programs in the 2010-2011 school year.

No comments

Curriculum Notes (Reading)

The whole curriculum thing got started with reading. Reading is one of the fundamental skills without which self learning of more advanced things is nearly impossible and is of such a bootstrapping nature that it can be totally overwhelming to contemplate teaching. We tried a few disorganized things when the Ben got little bits of interest in reading, but nothing ever stuck or showed enough promise to continue. Until September when he decided he wanted to read. We skimmed a couple curricula, one that looked ok (and has since gone back to the library), one online one that appeared to teach how to click on portions of the screen, and Teach your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons by Engelmann, Haddox and Bruner. A quick skim of the lessons and reading of the justification and teaching methods from the front convinced me that it was worth a shot. It is a phonics method, SRA/Distar. I had a vague dislike of phonics, but I’m not sure from what.

What I like:

Repetitive. There’s variable ratio reinforcement of things to learn, everything is introduced, then returned to on the next day 4-8 times, and then shows up again for another couple of days. At that point, it gets into a slower rotation of things that are just part of the knowledge base
Directions on Praise and Correction. They go for correcting everything, patiently, after one or two tries. The praise follows variable ratio conditioning. Praise sometimes, and for things that are done well, but not for everything and not at the same point in every lesson.
– A word for word script for the lessons. 6 months ago, I wouldn’t have wanted it, but it was a great confidence booster. Also, it really helped to keep lessons on track.
– Phonics needs to regularize the language. They provide a different orthography to indicate different sounds, diacritical marks on the vowels, arcs or ligatures to indicate groupings, and smaller characters to indicate silent letters. They were all in a different font, and clearly differentiated from the ordinary text that started later in the series. This was clearly designed to be a couple month bootstrap, not a long term thing.
Writing. It’s yet another bit of the brain that can be pulled into the writing thing.
– They start with the utterly regular to provide a pattern, but they introduce irregularities soon enough that the pattern does not become a hard rule. There were irregularities showing up by the 12th lesson or so. The special calling out of irregularities faded gradually as well, so the orthographic cues provided a crutch, but didn’t become the core of the understanding.
– All the special orthography goes away by lesson 74. It caused a 2-3 day dip in understanding before the switch from the sans-serif bold special orthography to the times roman ordinary one took hold.
– It worked.

What I didn’t like:

– Some of the stories were really odd.
– They explained the disappearance of an sh ligature to denote the sh sound by using the word fish, which, when set in their serif ‘normal’ font, had an fi ligature.

We managed to do a 15-30 minute lesson virtually every day from September to the New Year, at which point Ben got his first library card, chose a book, then sat down and read it to me. Then another one.

Sometimes focus was the challenge, sometimes taking it seriously, but on days when I wasn’t quite up to it, he was, and vice versa. Words take 2-4 days to internalize, and I can see it happen. Going through the word list can be a bit rough, then once or twice in the story, and by the third or fourth time, it just flows well. Now that we’re done with the curriculum, we’re trying something similar on the beginning reading books. I pick out some words and print them out, we review them and then read a book. We’re at a solid 1st grade level after 3 months, and I’m still seeing that he can pick up words when we work on them, or he’ll just come out with ones that I really don’t expect him to know. (like Australia. read properly, the first time)

No comments

Curriculum Notes (Math)

Now that the oldest boy is in a home school support kindergarten class, I’m starting to need to look at curriculum and figure out which ones are appropriate and which ones are worthless. Thankfully, I’m not alone in this, and there’s a ton of stuff on the web, some of it actually useful. For what it’s worth, I believe that kids have individual learning styles, and almost any style of learning will work for someone out there, and a subset of the teaching methods will work for any particular student. We’re not really pushing him, he’s driving most of the desire to wrk in workbooks or learn things. We’ll push through the occasional slow day, but most of the motivation is coming from him.

He’s got Math Expressions at school — it’s a fairly well regarded curriculum but we have individual issues with the at-home workbook stuff. He gets distracted in the non-math details and that derails the learning experience. For example, they’re working on numerical awareness, such as 5 is 5 things. Counting numbers, stuff that he’s pretty well got, but I don’t see a problem in reinforcing. The workbook could have something like “Draw 5 Bees” as a problem. Which leads to endless analysis and deliberation of how a bee should be drawn, and how complicated, and totally loses any thread of math, and pretty soon any thread of doing anything regarding forward progress. Not that I’m a real stickler for progress, but art is something that he does all the time, in volume and totally unprompted. Oddly, this doesn’t seem to be a problem at school, so it’s probably more of an expectation thing rather than something more fundamental. And, it’s not a problem with the of the other workbooks that we have around: Miquon, Singapore, and Jump.

Tabdump follows:

Cliff Mass is a professor in Atmospheric Sciences at the UW who is hammering on the math competency of the students coming into his 101 level class. In particular, there’s a diagnostic test here that I think I could have aced in middle school that incoming students collectively got a 58% on this year. He’s working on where’s the math.com a pretty deep website with a lot of curriculum reviews and overviews of what’s happening on the math education front these days. It scares me, not because it’s not what I learned, but that the math education seems so content and repetition free that there’s no way that the kids can learn the material. M.J McDermott, (a student of Mass’ and a Meterologist in Seattle) made a video demo of a couple of the current curriculum methods for multiplying and dividing.

Other links:

– A Comparative Study of high performing countries vs low performing countries.
– The California Math Standard — regarded as reasonably good.
How the NCEE Redefines Math — That explains a few things, this happened right around the time I left high school.

It seems that curriculum changes are a continuous stream of overreacting to the perceived faults of whatever came before. I remember not ‘getting’ Tom Lehrer’s New Math song, as whatever math I had was some sort of a reaction or counter reaction to whatever he was singing about decades earlier.

No comments