Information Age Education
   Issue Number 27
October, 2009   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. For more information, see the end of this newsletter.

“It isn't enough just to learn—one must learn how to learn, how to learn without classrooms, without teachers, without textbooks. Learn, in short, how to think and analyze and decide and discover and create." (Michael Bassis; President, Westminister College in Utah, USA.)

Many people believe that our precollege education system can be significantly improved through specifying standards and then requiring that these standards be met. Various incentives and punishments for students, teachers, schools, and school districts are suggested as possibly being useful in achieving the standards.

Relatively few of the standards creators and supporters include the ideas in the quote given above. Many people feel that there must be better ways to improve education than by placing still greater emphasis on uniform standards, more stringent requirements, and more high stakes testing.

National Standards

We have long had a variety of standards that have been developed by the various, professional societies, interest groups, and states. Many countries throughout the world have a national curriculum and attempt to enforce national standards. In recent years, we have been seeing a push toward national standards and US Federal Government attempts to enforce standards.

A draft of the most recent national standards development effort has recently been released.

Core Standards (September 2009). The Common Core State Standards Initiative. Retrieved 9/28/09 from http://www.corestandards.org/Standards/index.htm.

Quoting from accompanying documentation:

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a joint effort by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in partnership with Achieve, ACT and the College Board. Governors and state commissioners of education from across the country committed to joining a state-led process to develop a common core of state standards in English-language arts and mathematics for grades K-12.

These standards will be research and evidence-based, internationally benchmarked, aligned with college and work expectations and include rigorous content and skills.

English Language Arts Standards

The proposed English Language Arts Standards are broken into three categories:

  1. Reading
  2. Writing
  3. Speaking & Listening

To me, that looks straightforward enough. We want students to learn to communicate effectively using oral and written language. But, “the devil is in the details.” The Reading component includes a list of 13 things that students are supposed to learn to do. I like to read such lists and think about how qualified I am in the various areas listed.

For example, you are a literate adult, and likely you read a lot. Think about how well you do in the areas:

  • Analyze the traits, motivations, and thoughts of individuals in fiction and nonfiction based on how they are described, what they say and do, and how they interact.
  • Analyze how specific word choices shape the meaning and tone of the text.
  • Ascertain the origin, credibility, and accuracy of print and online sources.

I chuckled when I read the first two items, as I doubt that I would get a good grade in these areas. I was particularly pleased to see the third bulleted item listed above. It acknowledges the importance of learning to be a critical consumer of online materials.

In any event, think about the challenge of setting explicit valid, reliable, and fair levels of accomplishment for such standards. And, what about individual differences in student intelligence, cognitive development, culture, interests, and so on. Wow! No wonder education is such a challenging field!

Here are a couple of the items from the detailed list of Writing Standards that suggest the developers of the standards have some insight into Information Age technology.

  • Gather the information needed to build an argument, provide an explanation, or address a research question.
  • Use technology as a tool to produce, edit, and distribute writing.

However, the reading and writing lists do not provide standards for reading and writing in interactive, multimedia modes (such as reading and writing interactive Web materials). I think that this represents a major flaw in the proposed standards.

Mathematics Standards

The proposed mathematics standards are broken into 11 categories: 1) Mathematical Practice; 2) Number; 3) Quantity; 4) Expressions; 5) Equations; 6) Functions; 7) Modeling; 8) Shape; 9) Coordinates; 10) Probability; and 11) Statistics.

Notice the differences between the 3-topic Language Arts list and the 11-topic Mathematics list. We all have relatively good insight into the meaning of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. They are descriptors of “doing” language arts. Most of us have relatively poor insight into the meaning or purpose of the 11 items in the mathematics list. The list provides us no clues about what one might “do” in mathematics.

I am reminded of the report card my school used when I was in the first grade. One of the boxes that could be checked indicated, “Reads widely with understanding.” In a written comment, my teacher said, “Now that we have started on numbers, David really shines.” I understand what it means to read widely with understanding. I wonder whether when it came to numbers, I was a bright light or perhaps I glowed in the dark?

In any event, I eventually earned a doctorate in mathematics. It is not surprising that I explored with considerable curiosity the 11 item list given above. Quoting material from the item 2 (Numbers) discussion, here is a question for you. Do you know and understand the following Core Concepts?

A. The real numbers include the rational numbers and are in one-to-one correspondence with the points on the number line.

B. Quantities can be compared using division, yielding rates and ratios.

C. A fraction can represent the result of dividing the numerator by the denominator; equivalent fractions have the same value.

D. Place value and the rules of arithmetic form the foundation for efficient algorithms.

This is an example of an attempt at standards development that makes me laugh and cry at the same time. We are going to improve our math education system by making sure that all students learn the meaning of these four assertions at some specified level? I imagine that you just cannot function well in your adult life without making routine use of these four assertions.

The fourth bulleted item suggests to me that the writer is probably thinking about paper and pencil computational algorithms, and is ignoring a more general definition of this important idea in math and the fact that calculators and computers can carry out such algorithms very rapidly and very accurately.

The Mathematics Standards contain some good summary statements. Here is one that appeals to me. Read it and try to decide whether you would qualify as a mathematically proficient student. Also, think about how one might be able to quantify various levels of math proficiency and assess by use of multiple choice tests!

Make strategic decisions about the use of technological tools.

Mathematically proficient students consider the available tools when solving a mathematical problem, whether pencil and paper, ruler, protractor, graphing calculator, spreadsheet, computer algebra system, statistical package, or dynamic geometry software. They are familiar enough with all of these tools to make sound decisions about when each might be helpful. They use mathematical understanding and estimation strategically, attending to levels of precision, to ensure appropriate levels of approximation and to detect possible errors. They are able to use these tools to explore and deepen their understanding of concepts.

The proposed Math Standards seem weak on math modeling and they fail to incorporate the basic ideas of Computational Thinking (http://iae-pedia.org/Computational_Thinking) and Two Brains are Better than One (http://iae-pedia.org/Two_Brains_Are_Better_Than_One).


Final Remarks

I am disappointed by the proposed standards. It is not at all clear to me that widespread acceptance of and enforcement of these standards will improve our educational system.

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address http://IAE-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://I-A-E.org, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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