Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bill Gates is not part of the solution - just part of the problem.

This stuff burns me up:
"Common Core I would have thought of as more of a technocratic issue. The basic idea of, 'should we share an electrical plug across the country?' Well, you can get partisan about that I suppose. Should Georgia have a different railroad width than everybody else? Should they teach multiplication in a different way? Oh that's brilliant [sarcasm], who came up with that idea?
I've been listening to the Common Core debate - particularly with respect to the teaching of Math - with sadness and bitterness.

Not because I think their approach is awful - but because I think it's awesome.

Now you're quite right to wonder - Hey Lewy, what's "awesome" about teaching kids a way to calculate that's slow, more complex, and utterly incomprehensible to grown ups?

Well, that's a great question. You'd be dumb not to ask this question.

There is a pretty simple answer (details under the fold), but the Clerics and the Oligarchs haven't been really forthcoming about what that might be (probably because most of them don't know and don't care.)

The they have satisfied themselves with the hahaha look at the dumb hicks opposing progress in education narrative.

And predictably and understandably, the conservative blogosphere has responded with an omg clueless progs are teaching our kids total nonsense counter-narrative.

People like Bill Gates had a once in a generation opportunity to improve math education in this country. They took all their political capital and blew it, because they valued "smart guy" tribal identification and elite gratification over actually convincing people of something non-intuitive. Better to remain incomprehensible, deepen divisions, and generate extra opportunities to feel "smart" for you and your fellow travelers.

Gates is not the first arrogant geek to ruin a good argument and won't be the last, but he's emblematic to me of all that's wrong with our current would be "elite".

Both when he doesn't have anything to offer, and, especially, when he does.

The fine print is that the simple answer needs a lot of backing evidence.

But, since you're curious, the short, simple answer is that Common Core isn't aimed at teaching kids how to calculate answers, but how to think very generally and deeply about numbers and math. What we think of as "arithmetic", in fact, is just a handful of (manual) algorithms which were only codified recently in historical terms. Their critical importance is largely an illusion, a function of the era we grew up in.

And by "how to think" I mean create and exercise the right kinds of mental constructs and visualizations - connecting the symbol-processing part of the mind with the spatial-visualization part of the mind, in a way that makes more advanced mathematical concepts easier to learn.

The deeper kind of math education Common Core aims at is arguably more important in the age of computers - in fact it is a great background for the few kids who will grow up to program computers, and the many more kids who will grow up needing a deep understanding of the kind of results computers generate. (And if we lose computers, just for the sake of argument, then it will be important to have people who understand number and math very deeply, don't you think?)

Singapore has been using this kind of teaching for some time. The difference between Singapore 's teachers and our teachers using Common Core is that the Singapore teachers actually understand what they're teaching. The training for Common Core has been inadequate, and that's been part of the problem.

I'm not expecting people to believe me on my authority, just to entertain the idea that what I'm saying might have some validity.

But it's a shame nobody ever bothered even sharing this much with you, isn't it?


  1. When my son was in elementary school, we were urged to have him take "integrated math." They gave us a text book so we could see what it was about. Questions ran along these lines: "If Fred could chop down thee trees an hour and Charlie could chop down two trees an hour, how many endangered species would be extinct after two days?

    Lewy touched on one of my concerns when he said "And if we lose computers, just for the sake of argument, then it will be important to have people who understand number and math very deeply, don't you think?" People question why Morse Code is needed when we have all these modern means of communication. The reason is simple: someone could send Morse code with anything that could make a spark of any size. In other words, things could really go to hell in a hand basket and Morse could still work.

    Sometimes technocrats lose sight of reality. I'm sure you remember the old EBS tests that used to send the tones. They were replaced by the EAS system which sounds like bursts from a modem. Why did they come up with the new system? It was because nobody activated the EBS system after the San Francisco earthquake in 1989, and this was seen as a failure. However, the EAS system was not activated after the Seattle earthquake in 2001. Why not? It was felt that everyone knew there was an earthquake so why did there was no reason to activate the system.

    Does that make sense? Maybe it does to someone, but not to me. I don't think the elite are anywhere near as smart as they think they are. I just read that George Clooney stands a pretty good chance of running for President. I have no idea what qualifications he has for the job, but he is one of the elite, so he must be qualified.

    1. Matt, I understand what you're saying, and agree.

      After Obama, could Clooney be worse? Bah. I despise them all. Time to dump some tea in the harbor, my friends.

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  2. I've seen selected (cherry-picked) examples of the Common Core curriculum. I'm utterly baffled by their approach to even the simplest mathematical problems. I'm not some hick from the sticks that opposes all change for the hell of it; I'm trained in critical thinking, very good at abstract mathematics, and am vigorously in favor of rethinking our approach to education. However, Common Core isn't an honest effort to do so, IMHO. It's a politically-driven propaganda vehicle. Even the history sections are utter nonsense. I would not allow my granddaughter to be taught this crap; I would rather home school her so that she will learn how to think and explore for herself.

    The teachers of today are not educated. At the university I attended, if you couldn't make the grades for your chosen area of study, you were shuffled off into teaching. These students only needed to maintain a 2.0 grade average. It's pathetic.

    Even if parts of the mathematics section of Common Core has some merit lewy, we do not have the educators to present the material. Bill Gates has squandered his money and influence on elitist "feel good" projects that result in temporary fixes (his penchant for throwing money at Africa) or in confusion and rancor at the local school level (Common Core).

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  4. Lewy....please email me or call and try to explain what you mean here about teaching fundamental reasoning and it relationship to mathematics per se.

    Or, better yet, just do it here....I know there are among us those who would listen.

    I have a friend whose youngest son is entering the middle grades where the new core math is taught. I am unable to explain it or make sense of it to a distressed mother. A hint of it makes sense to me, but I don't have enough experience with higher mathematics to know for sure. I was once a gifted kid who could spout out answers without being able to explain the path I took to find it. (my brain function in three unitary modes, e.g....0 & 01, 5 or 10) That was a flaw because it helped no one else...let alone me in the long run. Any procedure that articulates the reasoning pathway is an improvement. Is that what you are saying?

    1. Ari, watch this lesson and ask yourself - is this not something like what you used to do in your head? (What you call "unitary modes" this teacher calls "friendly numbers")

      As a child I too would do stuff in my head and blurt out answers. But this is something like what I did.

      Why is this kind of thing good to teach?

      It develops the brain - thinking visually/spatially about numbers is a great "muscle" to develop.

      It also introduces the relationship between addition and subtraction.

      Finally, that whole "number line" and "distance between points" concept is going to be a great segue into Geometry. Probably sooner than later.

      I don't have enough expertise on the curriculum to speak definitively; I do know that it's not just stuff that "the Academy" made up, it has a proven track record in Asia.

      And again, I'm given to understand that the curriculum is poorly taught and poorly motivated in this country, undoing much of the benefit.

    2. Any procedure that articulates the reasoning pathway is an improvement. Is that what you are saying?

      Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying - with the added benefit that if you do this in a way that's generalizable to more abstract and advanced problems, by (slyly) introducing the concepts that those advanced concepts require, then you provide a great foundation to build on.

    3. Lewy...yes, dammit, it is exactly what I do in my head, every day. How do we teach this generally? Is "common core" really going to do this? Or is it hampered by the lack of experience the teachers of today? I'd hope that the new way will be clear and concise and the new students will be able to feel it as well as grasp it.

    4. How do we teach this generally? Is "common core" really going to do this? That was the idea.

      Or is it hampered by the lack of experience the teachers of today? That, and more. It's hampered by same disease that is apparently affliction all the institutions in the US right now.

      Here we go round the prickly pear
      Prickly pear prickly pear
      Here we go round the prickly pear
      At five o'clock in the morning.

      Between the idea
      And the reality
      Between the motion
      And the act
      Falls the Shadow
      For Thine is the Kingdom

      Between the conception
      And the creation
      Between the emotion
      And the response
      Falls the Shadow
      Life is very long

      Between the desire
      And the spasm
      Between the potency
      And the existence
      Between the essence
      And the descent
      Falls the Shadow
      For Thine is the Kingdom

      For Thine is
      Life is
      For Thine is the

      This is the way the world ends
      This is the way the world ends
      This is the way the world ends
      Not with a bang but a whimper.

      - T. S. Eliot

    5. Arg, screwed up the link: It was to The Hollow Men

  5. Excellent Glen Reynolds article you linked to.

    I don't understand Common Core but haven't seen much discussion of it. The few examples I've seen seemed torturous. I appreciate hearing a little more about it, lewy. As I've gotten older and have quit writing everything down, I found I do math in my head in a different way. I apparently use "friendly numbers" to do this although I don't go through all the steps that your linked example describes.

    Anyway, thanks for all the good information.