Progressive education was anti-algebra

For some reason, I missed this episode in the history of progressive education. (I need to finally read Left Back.)

William Heard Kilpatrick, one of the most influential pedagogical figures of the early twentieth century, would have felt right at home in today’s educational culture wars. Back then, as now, the traditionalist defense of math education came from the idea that the subject created order and discipline in the minds of young students. The child who could solve a geometric proof, for example, would carry that logic and work ethic into his professional life, even if it did not entail any numbers at all. Kilpatrick, a popular reformer who was known as the “million-dollar professor,” not for his salary but for the huge tuition-paying crowds his lectures drew, dismissed that idea. Algebra and geometry, he believed, should not be widely taught in high schools because they were an “intellectual luxury,” and “harmful rather than helpful to the kind of thinking necessary for ordinary living.” Not everyone was going to need or even have the intelligence to complete an algebra course, Kilpatrick reasoned. Why bother teaching it to them?

[snip]

Kilpatrick’s ideas were taken up by the progressivist movement in education, a powerful force in the early twentieth century inspired by the work of the philosopher John Dewey and guided by a set of principles that included “freedom for children to develop naturally,” “interest as the motive of all work,” and “teacher as guide, not taskmaster.” These ideas had their roots in the University of Chicago but ultimately went mainstream when they were championed by professors at the Columbia University Teachers College, where Kilpatrick and Dewey taught. The coalition of anti-math parents and academics had a steady influence on education policy for decades. From the start of the twentieth century to after the Second World War, the percentage of high-school students enrolled in algebra fell. In 1909, roughly fifty-seven per cent of high-school students were enrolled in algebra. By 1955, that number had been cut by more than half to about twenty-five per cent.

How Math Became an Object of the Culture Wars by Jay Caspian King, The New Yorker, 15 Nov. 2022.

John Dewey and the citizen child

From an interesting essay on John Dewey by John Fennelly:

Largely responsible for the positive reception of Dewey’s pedagogical principles was concern over the profoundly changing social and economic environment, especially the rapid growth of cities. . . . Schools, in Dewey’s vision, emerged as the premier mechanism for preserving democratic arrangements.

. . . . Traditional practices such as routine conveyance of subject matter, teacher-centeredness, rote memorization, neat rows of desks, and a quiet classroom had to be abandoned because they were not only out of step with the times but also encouraged undemocratic habits and attitudes. 

So apparently Dewey believed one should educate children in civics the same way progressive education educates students in math and science: not by learning civics (or math or science) via instruction, practice, and testing, but by doing civics via group problem solving.

A new union

In the spring of 2018, a young SEIU organizer, fresh out of Yale, arrived at my college to organize a union. I came on board the following fall and have been working on organizing the campuses ever since.

Organizing an army of adjuncts who have no offices and no connection to each other is a massive undertaking, made far more difficult in our case by Covid and Zoom, not to mention masks.

Kids don’t learn remotely, and workers don’t organize remotely, either. I don’t know why remote learning and remote organizing are so deficient, but they are. 

In spring 2019, we won our union 4 to 1.

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How to teach critical thinking in 1 hour

I’ve always been interested in Phil Tetlock‘s work on forecasting.

Turns out, good forecasting depends on good critical thinking, which can be boiled down to the habit of applying “but,” “however,” and “although” to your own ideas. That’s what “superforecasters” do.

Tetlock was able to improve college students’ forecasting skills by 10% in one hour of instruction.

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Reading an economics op ed in writing class

One frustration I have, teaching freshman composition, has to do with the essays that appear in readers.

Almost universally, they are about one subject and one subject alone: identity. That’s it. Hispanic identity, Asian identity, black identity, female identity, gay identity, disability identity, on and on.

And everything is personal. First person, no research, no footnotes.

Which would be fine if my students were going to be writing 1st-person, no-research papers in the future. But they’re not.

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Cold calling via Stick Pick

Cold calling is central to my nearly 3-hour long freshman composition class, and the Stick Pick app is central to my cold calling.

Stick pick imitates popsicles being pulled out of a can, complete with sound effects. My students always get a kick out of it. The algorithm ensures everyone is called on the same number of times, and I think they like that, too. No favorites, and no possibility of favorites, even.

True story: several years ago, I had a student I found frightening. He was well over 6 feet tall, and he used to glare at me for pretty much the entire 3 hours of class. It was impossible to tell whether he was angry at me in particular or at the world in general.

Stick Pick didn’t care.

My “scary” student had as many opportunities to speak as anyone else in the class, and his answers were generally sound. I did watch to see whether he needed to be questioned less than other students. I never use cold calling as a gotcha. It’s a means of distributing participation and keeping everyone awake, and that’s all.

That experience had a surprise ending.

That December, I had private conferences with each student to discuss the exit exam, which was to be graded anonymously by the department, not by me. When I met with my angry student–this was a bit unnerving since we were in a modular completely isolated from the rest of the campus–I told him three things he needed to do to pass the exam.

He listened without glaring, but also without making eye contact. When I stopped talking, he gave me a soft, shy smile and said he would do all three. And he did. He passed.

That smile!

Was he severely shy? Shy, not angry?

I’ll never know, but I still remember his smile.

Impact of Cold-Calling on Student Voluntary Participation

Anti-racism and the comma splice

Should composition instructors teach Standard Written English to students of color?

Apparently, there is a faction within the field of Rhetorical Studies that holds we should not. Standard Written English is a white language, the thinking seems to go (I have this secondhand) and should not be imposed upon POCs. People of color have their own language, which we instructors should respect and embrace. 

I dissent.

I dissent for the simple reason that I teach writing, not talking, and black and Hispanic students don’t have their own written language. White students don’t, either. Nobody does.

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When a colon replaces a period

Great teaching example I’ll use this fall, from George Gopen’s Expectations: Teaching Writing from the Reader’s Perspective:

The film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit your TV.

versus

The film has been modified from its original version: It has been formatted to fit your TV.

(Gopen capitalizes the independent clause after a colon. I don’t, so I would write this without the second capital.)

In the first version, a number of modifications could have been made: change in length, removal of bad words, elimination of explicit sex scenes.

In the 2nd version, just one change has been made, and we know what it is. The film has been formatted to fit our TV. The end.

Gopen says the colon in such sentences functions as an equals sign, and I like that way of thinking about it, though colon-as-equals-sign is too abstract to help students decide when to use one, obviously.

But as an analogy, it’s interesting and fun.

How to end a sentence

A sentence from John Brennan on the subject of UFOs:

I think some of the phenomena we’re going to be seeing continues to be unexplained and might, in fact, be some type of phenomenon that is the result of something that we don’t yet understand and that could involve some type of activity that some might say constitutes a different form of life.

How UFO sightings went from joke to national security worry in Washington

I think I’ll use this when we discuss hedging in class next fall.

Sex and the semicolon

George Gopen on his introduction to the semicolon:

To be completely straightforward with you, for a very long time I harbored a suspicion that the semi-colon had something to do with sex. I remember the day – I was 12 years old at the time – when my English teacher reached the section of our textbook that dealt with the semi-colon. With a noticeable amount of emotional discomfort, he told our all-male class, “We won’t go into the semi-colon. You don’t need that now. You’ll need that later.” He was relieved not to have to tell us; we were relieved not to have to face the unveiling of the mystery. We were feeling that way about a number of concerns at that particular stage of life and had seen our fathers undergo the same discomfort and the same escape by avoidance.

My teacher was right, of course. I didn’t need the semi-colon at age 12. Unfortunately, by the time I was grown up enough to need the semi-colon, there was no one around to explain it to time. By then, I was somehow supposed to know all about it. I went around for years thinking I was one of the few people who did not understood (sic) this mystery. I now know that most people are just as insecure about it as I was.

The Sense of Structure: Writing from the Reader’s Perspective by George D. Gopen, p 161

Guide, side, teach, tell

Barry Garelick’s Out on Good Behavior: Teaching Math While Looking Over Your Shoulder (Katharine reviewed it here) is a terrific book: funny, affecting, and real. One of my favorite passages, from the Introduction and Dedication:

I want to share some advice I received from Ellen, one of my two “parole officers” whom you will meet in this book….

“Students have more faith in something they think they came up with than something the teacher tells them.”

…Some teachers have told me that they are not allowed to answer a student’s question directly. In fact, the quote from Ellen was her response to my question of why it’s acceptable for students to show other students how to do a problem, but it’s not acceptable if a teacher does so….

From time to time, however, most, if not all, teachers will answer a student’s question by telling them what they need to know in order to solve a problem. And most, if not all, teachers (myself included) feel guilty doing this, because we are taught that that’s giving away the answer and we are handing it to the student, or to put it in more educational terminology: “teaching by telling.”

The Hundred Years’ War.