More from PISA

As promised, I will briefly discuss the strange paradox I saw in a slide show presented at a recent teachers’ conference I attended. The paradox is that in the OECD countries participating in PISA testing, the correlation between interest in science topics and performance on the PISA science test is negative. The point of the presenter at the conference was that we need to find ways to preserve or improve interest in science while keeping achievement high or raising it.

Much as I enjoyed the presentation, I wondered whether there aren’t other kinds of problem embedded in this paradox. Francesco Avvisati, the OECD analyst reporting the paradox in a larger presentation, thinks there may be. He notes, for example, that “self-enhancement,” which includes saying good things about oneself (including how keen one is on science), is viewed differently in different cultures. Not everyone in this world who is Peter Pan’s age goes around singing, “I’ve Got to Crow!” The tendency to crow or not appears to be bound to the culture of one’s upbringing, and may affect answers. Given that the same regions of the world that produce good test results also have low “self-enhancement,” as it’s called, one wonders whether some cultures talk the talk while others walk the walk. Such differences would complicate taking remedies from one part of the world and trying to apply them in another[1].

It is also interesting to find that teachers’ concentrating on discussing and explaining the applications and uses of science in the modern world is most likely to raise students’ interest in science, while their use of hands-on methods of instruction such as labs is most likely to raise science test scores[2]. Readers of these postings will know that I favor genuine over “virtual” classrooms. PISA’s findings seem to support such a preference because they focus on things that teachers can do but that software cannot. (And “autonomous student inquiries” favored in constructivist classrooms are the worst thing for improvement of interest or test scores, suggesting that teachers’ guidance really matters, which of course all teachers, but not all educationists or software vendors, already know.)

Finally, Avvisati notes that the interest/test score paradox is undercut by a fascinating finding that within any particular school, the correlation between individual students’ interest and their test scores tends to be positive, but that this correlation vanishes when numbers are mixed between schools and average correlations are sought. Avvisati suggests[3] that these results imply “diverging effects on student interest and test scores” in different school cultures.

If he is right, firing the teachers at schools that have lousy value-added averages may do little to improve scores if the schools’ cultures work against good teaching and learning. Maybe some “further study is needed” in the real causes of trouble before NCLB and RAT bring in the headsmen.

[1] See slide 9 of Avvisati’s presentation linked above.

[2] Slides 18 – 20.

[3] Slides 11 – 12.


Scaling Creativity with Chatty Cathy

I thought there might be some promise in the limited use of didactic instruction online, so long as Real People conducted real coaching and Socratic instruction at its side, but a failed experiment at San Jose State University suggests that this hope may have been misplaced. It appears that the proportion of online material to live teachers was much too great.

That is where the push for e-learning will tend to end up when the prime movers for its adoption are schools strapped for cash and serial optimists from Ed Biz profit centers touting costly quick cheap untested remedies. This is a dangerous combination. Add to it a dash or two of bad thinking and the bad results will be almost guaranteed.

Two examples of bad thinking appear in the Times article linked above. The first is the patronizing rationalization of the experiment’s failure by a teacher at San Jose State. He said, “You have to understand how innovation works…” Those of us who do not know how innovation works will undoubtedly be grateful for this reminder, but some of us may actually think that experimental “iteration” on the backs of students who pay good money for bad instruction is at best a bad bargain, no matter how “innovative.”

The second example is that “some[1]” propose an analogy with mobile phones, which have moved from “clunky and unreliable” to “indispensable.” A moment’s thought will show how unsatisfactory this analogy is: the transmission of vocal communication, a relatively simple process, is not analogous to education, one of the most complex activities known to us. It also overlooks the difference between subscription to a phone service as a bit of voluntary consumerism and the imposition of an untried system of education on young people who have not asked for it.

And some system! Teachers of a certain age remember the Chatty Cathy doll, which produced “conversation” when a ring and string were pulled. It’s hard not to see instructional software as essentially a big Chatty Cathy. Will the users who get the software on Christmas tire of it by December 26? Attrition in MOOCs has been high.

And one proponent of Chatty Cathy says that the next challenge is “scaling creativity.” If the success of educational software depends on people who, as if from the Grand Academy of Lagado, can say or even “think” such things, we may anticipate many more failures before we turn back to good live teaching and give it the funding it deserves.

The MOOCs’ first green was cash,

And promises were rash:

With programs such as these,

Who needs old Socrates?

But savings must be made,

And profits must be paid,

So MOOCs brought no relief;

Thus teaching sank to grief.

Thus dawn sinks down to day:

No MOOCs at San Jose.

(With apologies to Robert Frost)

[1] A mysterious source, always on background, known only to reporters


A Graph Stranger than Fiction

No regular posting this week: houseguests arrive from South Africa today for a holiday visit, and I am still mulling over some material encountered yesterday at a teachers’ conference in Wan Chai.

More soon, I hope, but I couldn’t resist reporting on a curious finding by the OECD in the wake of its 2012 PISA results: the “test score/interest paradox”.  Broadly speaking, it is a very surprising correlation between scores on the PISA science tests and interest in science topics as shown in a poll of students that accompanied the tests. The correlation is negative. That means that in general, there is a tendency for “countries” whose students who do not show a comparatively high interest in science topics to do better on the tests than those whose students report a high interest!

The discovery of this graph led me to the OECD report on PISA, which I will be digesting in due course. In the meantime, a curious observation. If you divide the graph in quadrants—low interest/high scores, high interest/high scores, low interest/low scores, and high interest/low scores, there is only one PISA entity (national or municipal) in the high interest/high score quadrant (and that just barely). This unique outlier is Hong Kong.


Put Away the Pompoms

Why do 90% of today’s American high-school students not want to study science, technology, engineering and math? According to The New York Times, it is mainly because these subjects are taught in ways that don’t engage the interest of students—traditional ways, which haven’t changed since Sputnik. Why, then, are shoals of Asian students attracted to these subjects, which are taught there in ways just as old-fashioned, if not more so? Until that question is answered, calls for pompoms and tap dancing by math teachers will be pointless.

The Times article sideswipes a more real issue twice: once when it mentions that students whose families provide a solid upbringing with a culture of support for schooling are more likely to succeed in these subjects, and once when it mentions that scientists and technicians are perceived as clueless nerds. A couple of years ago I noted a third reason, also reported then by the Times: “It’s too darn hard.” This does not mean that merciless math teachers require eighth graders to study differentiation, but rather that students whose classrooms have been sandboxes of Jungle Gym Math for years crumple under the pressure when they finally have to study something difficult, and don’t manage the effort needed because they simply haven’t learned to do so.

Like the Times, I am all in favor of qualified teachers. They presumably like the subject they chose to qualify in, and did well in it. They can therefore proceed confidently and enthusiastically where an unqualified teacher will have to rely stepwise on his or her teacher’s guide, a sure recipe for boredom. But in a milieu where they are disrespected, or where their pay on an hourly basis as a teacher is not much different from the janitor’s, why should qualified persons want to teach? It will do no good to jump up the curriculum and then hire mediocrities to present it in classrooms. (And it will do no good to try and gull qualified candidates with make-believe ad campaigns and have them quit after they discover what much teaching is really like.)

But even with a good curriculum and teachers, teaching will fail without some readiness by the students to meet the demands of schooling part way:

1.     They need nurture (by parents or others) in a culture that promotes and values learning.

2.     They must disabuse themselves of idiotic stereotypes, such as that of the nerd[1].

3.     They must not suppose that teachers need to earn their respect like a dividend; rather, they must regard respect as part of the capital endowment of civilization.

4.     They must be ready to roll up their sleeves and do a job of work.

[1] Brought up as I was partially in the Pre-Cambrian world of boredom before Sputnik, I cannot recall ever hearing the word “nerd” applied to anyone for any reason at any point during my education.


RIP Nelson Mandela 1918 – 2013

On Valentine’s Day 2005 I had taken a black South African family out to lunch in a place of entertainment in suburban Johannesburg designed to look like an Italian town. After we left the restaurant and were walking along one of the “streets”, we were approached by a “giant” on stilts moving at a slow and stately pace. The younger son hid behind his daddy as the giant strolled by. After leaving, we went to a shopping mall and were looking at the Valentine’s Day flower arrangements at a florist’s near the entrance from the parking lot to the mall.

A hubbub from the parking lot got me to look out and see what was happening. Well! Nelson Mandela himself was walking towards the door, with a few people following him and at his side. I went back into the shop and told the family, “Mandela is coming!” We went out, and as he came through the door, I advised the boys to go up to him because he likes children. The first surprise for those who have not actually seen Madiba before is how tall he is. Maybe that explains the differing reactions of the boys. The elder boy went up to him and received a greeting and a pat on the head, but the younger looked up with the same expression he had on his face on seeing the “giant” in the “Italian town.” Madiba respected his cautiousness and didn’t approach him, but instead continued his own slow and stately walk into the mall, where applause and cheers broke out as he made his way to a book store. His justly famous smile was even more radiant close up, if that were possible, than in his pictures, especially when he was greeting the boys.

But the little boy came closer in his wide-eyed stare to the imaginative truth about Madiba than the rest of us. At the end of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, the Narrator, at a garden party given by the Prince de Guermantes, has just had the climactic insight into time and memory that makes it finally possible for him to begin his life’s work, which is to write the book the reader is finishing. He catches sight of the immensely old and distinguished Duc de Guermantes just as he rises from a chair. “I now understood,” he says, “Why the Duc de Guermantes… had tottered when he got up and wanted to stand erect…and had trembled like a leaf on the unapproachable summit of his eighty-three years, as though…perched upon living stilts that keep on growing, reaching the height of church towers….” In the book he now hoped to write, the Narrator proposes to “describe men…as…occupying a place in Time infinitely more important than the restricted one reserved for them in space, a place… prolonged immeasurably since, simultaneously touching widely separated years and the distant periods they have lived through—between which so many days have ranged themselves—they stand like giants immersed in Time[1].” The man I saw in front of me was not just a very tall and stately distinguished old man; he was a giant in the times and days that he embodied as he slowly walked past.

[1] I am using the online version available through Gutenberg: