Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Learning Styles is an Excuse

One of the things I've been saying for quite awhile now is that the ideas of learning styles is overstated. While we all have strengths and weaknesses, interests and things we couldn't care less about, these are trivial in comparison with the ability to learn when we need to.

The notion that learning styles, strengths in auditory, visual, kinesthetic or some 70 other proposed tactics towards learning are so profound that we should structure teaching around them is nonsense and recent research is backing that up. A review of the literature on learning styles has shown them to be statistically flawed, meaning there is little to no evidence for the learning styles notion. The report even goes so far as to note that in the few tests that did have statistical significance, some contradicted the learning style theory.

In my opinion, it's long past time to dump this. Even if there were some validity to it, I don't think employing it has helped. In fact, I think it has the potential to do far more harm than good because it has provided a convenient excuse that students can and will employ that is virtually impossible to argue against. Beyond simple grades, it teaches students that everything should be catered specifically to them, a lesson many take with them in life later creating a sense of entitlement and inflexibility.

So instead of flexing the curriculum to the (imagined) strengths of the student, we need to teach students to be flexible thinkers. They need to be forced to develop mental muscles that may not be immediately easy to them and produce well rounded thinkers instead of pigeon-holed into a learning style that can be used as an excuse for failure.

So Close, Yet So Far

So here's me looking for a teaching position and what do I find from Northridge High School in Greely, Colorado?

Sweet. I wanna teach astrology! Muggles love that stuff.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Missouri's Teacher-Facebook Law Struck Down

For those living out of state, you may not have heard of this law, so here's the story:

Earlier this year, the Missouri legislature passed a new law banning teachers from using websites that granted "exclusive access" to students, current or former. The bill was proposed to close potential gateways for predators. It was primarily targeted for websites like facebook.

But immediately, it was noted that the bill had some substantial flaws. Firstly, it didn't just tell teachers that they couldn't use websites to communicate with students, it said teachers couldn't use the websites at all. This would have an obvious chilling effect on teachers ability to their protected free speech and as such, would be unconstitutional. Additionally, it didn't make exceptions for parents that were teachers communicating with their own children. In general, the poor wording just made the law plain stupid.

Aside from that, several people criticized the law because it cut off potential gateways for communication that is good. In other words, teachers work to reach out to students through the methods students are employing, such as texts, twitter, and facebook. Obviously, much of such communication could be done openly, but there are often times students don't want to be seen asking for help and would rather do it behind the scenes. Similarly, any sensitive information like grades is required to be discussed privately. While this could certainly be done through a district controlled Email, let's face it, it's not what students are tending to use. Facebook chats and messages have largely replaced traditional Email. Cutting that out throws the baby out with the bathwater. So again, this creates more problems that it solves.

The last issue people (including myself) have with this bill, is the light it casts on teachers: Once again, they're the bad guys. It automatically assumes that teachers are all sexual predators just waiting for a private channel of communication. Guilty until proven innocent. Meanwhile, it places no admonitions for parents to monitor their kids online activity or text logs. It once again removes parental responsibility and places it everywhere but where it should be.

So no matter how I look at it, the bill is a pretty large failure and seeing it struck down is wonderful.

But what bothers me the most is that it even got signed into law with such glaring flaws. Not only that, it was passed unanimously. Politicians should need to understand law before writing it.

Another NCLB Failure

This article has brought to my attention yet another way the NCLB is counter-productive in getting students proficient: It has forced schools to nearly eliminate science at the elementary school levels.

Since science, as a subject isn't tested until later, the schools, especially those in danger of failing the unreasonable standards set by NCLB, change their curriculums to focus on the immediate threat. At the elementary level, this has tended to be English.
More than eight hours of instructional time are devoted each week to teaching “English Language Arts” (“ELA” is a story in and of itself) and over five hours per week to math. By comparison, science is taught for less than three hours.
In other words, kids are getting short changed in science. They lose their base and by the time emphasis picks up, it's too late. They're uninterested and under prepared.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Bad Internet Poll

I think everyone knows that internet polls are pretty worthless, but one of the most pervasive forms I see used to misinform people, is ones attached to a news report or article, which then asks your opinion on the issue about which you've just given information. Generally, the information has a significant bias, significantly skewing the poll even beyond the poor sampling the internet provides.

Today, I came across a really fun example of this. IGN has an article on "Why the SNES is the King of RPGs". It's a pretty one sided article. It lists some of the great SNES RPGs that were fantastic, giving a few details about them, but doesn't even give a nod to another system to allow for any sort of honest comparison.

Yet that comparison is absolutely necessary since, in some ways, if not many, other systems have blown the SNES RPGs out of the water. Case in point: The advances in sound quality have allowed for high quality music to be placed in these games that have become some of the most memorable video game themes ever. Final Fantasy 7 is known for its beautiful symphonic soundtrack. So are other Final Fantasy games which has led to the creation of the Final Fantasy Distant Worlds concert. While this includes symphonic adaptations of the NES and SNES scores, it is far more faithful to the actual renderings for the game produced for the later systems.

Another aspect that has improved along these lines is the possibility for voice acting that has brought characters in games like Final Fantasy 10 to life. If these characters were merely text boxes, their emotions, also portrayed by detailed facial features, would not have endured as well as they have.

It should be noted that these games aren't on the same systems. FF7 was the Playstation 1, and FF10 was the Playstation 2. There's a few other notable titles, such as the Kingdom Hearts series, but to be fair, the SNES has more titles I would consider memorable.

But is that because the SNES is truly the king of RPGs? Or is it because the SNES simply had a larger number of RPGs from which to choose from which means more will fall into the "classic" category simply because of greater numbers? Or is it possible that they're only deemed classic because the reviewers grew up playing these games (ie, is there a psychological bias here)?

None of these are addressed, leaving a heavily skewed article that merely masquerades as legitimate.

And of course, to add to its pseudo-legitimacy, they add a poll. And not surprisingly, it tells them what they just told everyone else.

Friday, August 19, 2011

When C's Became A's

I think this image says it all.

The most important one to me is the second graph, showing the histogram of grades. It's pathetic.

However, I'm not going to jump and blame colleges straight away. As the infographic notes, "60% of college presidents say public high school students are less well-prepared... than they were 10 years ago." If that's the case, they're merely being forced to pass along students that have already been passed along. As a high school teacher, I've already noticed the same thing; students walk into high school barely being competent in basic arithmetic. Primary schooling is shuffling students along.

Why? Our educational policies punish schools that don't. This needs to be fixed.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Book Review - His Dark Materials

I can't seem to keep my reading list straight. I was working on Greatest Show on Earth. It's actually the third time I've picked up the book and found it too tedious to keep me from distraction. Perhaps that's enough of a review right there, but hopefully, one day, I'll finish it.

Anyway, before leaving for my convention trips last month, I decided I wanted some lighter reading that would help me eat the rather considerable free time I'd have. So I grabbed the compendium of His Dark Materials I gave to my sister for Christmas when the movie came out for Golden Compass, which was the first book in the trilogy.

My overall impression of the series is that they were merely decent. Not on par with the Harry Potter series. Both worlds are exceptionally well fleshed out and have a similar feel that the authors (or perhaps it was intended to be the experience of the characters) had no direction in the beginnings. In Harry Potter, it was little more than Voldemort was a baddie until book six when it's suddenly, "Boom! Horcruxes!" which brought the whole story into sharp focus. With His Dark Materials, it was about rescuing kids from having their spirit animals cut apart from them until half way through the second book when it suddenly changed to waging war against false powers.

Again, comparing to Harry Potter, the writing felt more forced in this series as well. Critics of Harry Potter often note how convenient it is that the kids just learned the spells necessary to defeat whatever they're up against in class last week. In this book, they're wandering through dimensions and happen to stumble across everyone and everything they need. This hurts the characterization some since this blind stumbling seems to drive the characters nearly as much as their own ambitions which aren't always terribly convincing. This is especially true for one of the characters that comes in later, Mary, who is supposed to play a pivotal role, but doesn't get all that much page time and that role she does play, isn't nearly as powerful as the lead up to it was pretending.

Similarly, the main villains, past the first book, were all pretty lame in the end. As I'm sure most people know, the movie got a lot of grief because this series is heavily critical of the Church, and creates a scenario in which God isn't really the creator, but rather the first sentient being who just slapped his name on everything and stole credit to dominate all life from then on. I thought this was a fantastic premise that would lead up to a grand showdown, but it didn't happen. God was a hermit that wasn't really running the show and was being carried around by some angels in a chariot that got shot down without anyone even knowing. That's all.

Meanwhile, the guy actually running the show, the real baddie, Metatron (yeah, I'm picturing Alan Rickman too), never even went toe to toe with the main characters. Instead, he fought her daddy (ok, mommy was there too but largely worthless), and they all threw themselves off a cliff together. The devastating weapon, the subtle knife, that even Gods would fear? Never even delivered. Quite a letdown. The most threatening bad guy wasn't the actual angels or God. Instead, it was the Church in one of the many worlds which had an interdimensional bomb that could hunt you down no matter where you were with no more than a strand of hair.

Overall, the books were worth reading, but not something I'm likely to pick up again.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The End of NCLB?

It looks like the No Child Left Behind act may be getting gutted.

The secretary of education has announced that he intends to start handing out waivers, exempting many schools from meeting the unrealistic standards set forth by the act.

However, I'm not entirely sure how this plan is going to play out.
Melody Barnes, director of President Obama’s White House Domestic Policy Council, emphasized that, while all states would be able to apply for waivers regarding NCLB’s accountability, only those seen as instituting “ambitious school improvement initiatives” — such as their own testing and accountability programs — would be granted them.
So... a state can make up their own tests and standards of accountability and get off of having any federal oversight?

This sounds like it could be abused greatly.

Also, the article says that they'll be looking for states to "improve teacher effectiveness and evaluation systems based on student test scores and other measures". So once again, they're laying all the blame at the feet of teachers. Another absurd proposition that completely misses the true problems we face in education.

I'll have to keep an eye on this one.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Pareidolia: n + 23

Today over at Bad Astronomy, Phil has a post up about an angry fist shaking cloud. In the effort to one-up him, I present, a face in the clouds.