Monday, October 5, 2015

Not a Luddite

“Because I’m not a Luddite.” This was Les Perelman’s response when asked, in a Boston Globe interview, why he joined a web-based writing tutorial company after years of railing against computerized writing evaluations. Having recently retired from the directorship of MIT’s Writing Across the Curriculum program, Perelman is now the chief research scientist for WriteLab, a startup company that has partnered with dozens of college writing centers. WriteLab uses computerized algorithms to offer students feedback on their writing and guide them toward revisions.

Writelab Logo
As Perelman noted in the Globe interview, the software is not a replacement for a human teacher, but rather a supplement. By providing suggestions and questions, it not only facilitates improvement but helps students become more aware of their writing, whether they defend or reject their original choices. Perelman explained in the interview that automated writing instruction can be valuable despite computers’ shortcomings, and that he got involved because, “…if we don’t do it well, other people are going to do it badly.”

Doing it badly is what Perelman became concerned about a few years ago when the Educational Testing Service, which develops and administers the SAT, developed an e-Rater to automatically grade students’ essays. The New York Times noted that Perelman exposed significant flaws in the system by showing that he was able to earn high scores by submitting to the e-Rater prose that was essentially gibberish. Included in his findings was that the e-Rater values number and size of words over truth and logical coherence.

For example, the e-Rater generated positive feedback in response to this:
Competition which mesmerizes the reprover, especially of administrations, may be multitude. As a result of abandoning the utterance to the people involved, a plethora of cooperation can be more tensely enjoined. Additionally, a humane competition changes assemblage by cooperation. In my semiotics class, all of the agriculturalists for our personal interloper with the probe we decry contend.. . .

Clearly, Perelman had good reason to be cynical about algorithms’ evaluative and informative capabilities, although ETS disputed his findings and conclusions. However, he also has good reason to have some faith in them; and his move to WriteLab may signify that understanding. As anyone who uses a GPS knows, technology certainly can be harnessed for helpful guidance. What one recent study found, though, is that people actually tend to underestimate how much algorithms should be trusted. When researchers at the University of Pennsylvania had subjects observe and then choose between a human or statistical model to make predictions, the subjects were more likely to pick the human model. These results followed a number of other studies’ findings regarding the tendency to dismiss algorithms. In various domains such as stock forecasts or medical decisions, people tended to favor human judgement. However, research suggests that mechanical predictions often beat personal judgement, contrary to what we might be inclined to think is the case.

An openness to the power of technology along with a healthy skepticism and understanding of its limitations seems to be the best approach, in education and in general. Because, after all, we are not Luddites.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Science Apps from Tinybop

Like many of the strong educational app suites available today, the spark that turned into Tinybop came when the CEO was searching for apps for his own son and came up empty handed. Often, digital tools can be fun and engaging for children but lack educational rigor. However, there are several strong ed Tech companies that have set out to change that by creating tools that are more than simple busywork. One such company that  is radically changing the landscape of science education is Tinybop.

The Explorer Library offered by Tinybop provides students with whimsically interactive ways for kids to engage with basic science concepts. Tinybop explains it best, by saying that in these apps, “kids play and learn by diving into big ideas, seeing how things work and making connections about the world they live in.” If English isn’t your first language that is okay, Tinybop releases many of their apps in over 50 languages to ensure that learners of all backgrounds can access their incredible content.

The Human Body app allows students to explore the skeletal, muscular, nervous, circulatory, and digestive systems in a highly interactive manner. Using your iPhone’s camera, children can watch pupils dilate and learn how we send messages through to our brain. Meanwhile, in the Plants app, students will master life cycles and explore different environments and habitats. Students can travel across time and explore the earth’s layers in the Earth app, or understand mechanics by conducting their own experiments in the Simple Machines App.

Beyond the applications, the Tinybop website offers additional resource materials to extend the learning beyond the digital space. Using the educational handbooks students can read more about the area of science they are mastering and glean answers to some of their burning questions. Again, like the apps, each handbook is produced in several languages. If you are interested in knowing more about the benefits of these apps for promoting inquiry and scientific learning, you can review the company’s One Sheet. To keep the science learning going, Tinybop has curated some of their favorite resources in their Loves section of their website. The apps and additional resources are worth exploring to help any budding scientist explore the world around them.

Monday, September 28, 2015

How We Learn

At The Yellin Center, we never grow tired of the subject of how we learn and the book 
How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens seemed like a good one for perusal. Author Benedict Carey, a science reporter for The New York Times, presents a wealth of fascinating research regarding memory and learning, the findings of which dispel some common myths. Synthesizing the results and translating the data into practical applications, Carey elucidates some keys to academic success. A few of the misconceptions that the book dispels reflect some of the thoughts we have heard expressed by frustrated students and families. For example:

“I completely know it when I’m studying, and then I forget on the test.”

This is the fluency illusion, i.e., the belief that because we know something now, we know it well enough to know it later. Self-testing guards against this. Significantly more effective than traditional review, taking practice quizzes is a recommended way of studying. Not only does it highlight what you do and do not know, but this method (called "retrieval practice") is in and of itself a way of enhancing memory. Another suggested guard against the fluency illusion is to try to teach or summarize a concept to someone else. This can even be done in your imagination, if there is no one nearby or interested in the subject matter.

“He needs to find a single quiet space to study.”

While having such a place most often devoted to studying may be helpful, varying study environments can actually facilitate learning. New locations provide new cues, or associations, and we know that having a rich fund of associations is beneficial for being able to retrieve information from memory. The recommendation to vary how you study goes beyond considering a change in study space. New memory cues can be created by transforming information, e.g., from a given list to a personally drawn diagram.

“She needs to get off of Facebook. She has too many distractions.”

Certainly, if a student is spending the bulk of her time online at the expense of schoolwork, then this is a problem. However, distraction can actually be used as a valuable tool. In creative problem-solving or writing, it helps to step away to allow for an incubation period, in which time can help “unfix” constraining ways of thinking. Further, when taking a break from the middle of a writing assignment, you will be more attuned to related references in the environment, which may trigger ideas that facilitate the remainder of your writing.

“There is so much material to learn. I should probably sleep less and study more.”

Sleep is too important to sacrifice. It sharpens memory and skills, improving retention and comprehension of what you learned the day before.

“I wish I didn’t forget so much.”

Forgetting can be frustrating, but keep in mind that forgetting is an important aid rather than the enemy of learning. With all of the information we are inundated with daily, it is necessary that the brain apply a filter and block out relatively unimportant information.

“I probably just need to go over it and over it more times in a row.”

Interleaving, or studying an interspersed variety of related tasks, is more conducive to learning than studying just one thing at a time. Varied practice forces you to internalize general rules, and thereby enhances transfer. While skills may quickly improve after focused repetition, they tend to then plateau. While varied practice produces a slower apparent rate of improvement in each session, it yields a greater and more durable accumulation of learning over time.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

New Guidance on Testing Accommodations

Standardized exams -- SAT, ACT, GRE, MCAT, LSAT, and others -- are  "gateways to educational and employment opportunities" and the entities that offer these tests are to required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to offer these exams in a manner accessible to persons with disabilities.

The ADA came into being in 1990 and was amended in 2008 in an effort by Congress to overturn the impact of several judicial decisions that narrowed its intended scope. New Regulations implementing the revised ADA were adopted in 2010.

Despite the revised regulations, there has continued to be resistance on the part of testing agencies, especially the Law School Admissions Council, which oversees the LSAT, to  extending accommodations to students with disabilities. Even where there has been no pattern of resistance to offering accommodations, confusion about what should be offered and to whom has raised questions for schools, testing agencies, and students.

 The Disability Rights Section of the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division has noted that they continue "to receive questions and complaints relating to excessive and burdensome documentation demands, failures to provide needed testing accommodations, and failures to respond to requests for testing accommodations in a timely manner."

In response to these questions and complaints, the Department of Justice has just released new guidelines for testing accommodations.  Among the highlights of this document are the following:

  • A person with a history of academic success may still be a person with a disability who is entitled to testing accommodations under the ADA
  • Any documentation if required by a testing entity in support of a request for testing accommodations must be reasonable and limited to the need for the requested testing accommodations
  • Proof of past testing accommodations in similar test settings is generally sufficient to support a request for the same testing accommodations for a current standardized exam or other high-stakes test
  • An absence of previous formal testing accommodations does not preclude a candidate from receiving testing accommodations
  • Testing entities should defer to documentation from a qualified professional who has made an individualized assessment of the candidate that supports the need for the requested testing accommodations. A testing entity should generally accept such documentation and provide the recommended testing accommodation without further inquiry
Every student who anticipates taking a standardized test, every educator and administrator who works with such students, and every testing service that administers such tests should take the time to carefully review these guidelines. They are clear, concise, and very specific about what they do -- and do not -- require. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why Not? Celebrate: Punctuation!

This Thursday, September 24th, is National Punctuation Day! If you’re like us, this is a day to celebrate. After all, those little dots, lines, and squiggles add important meaning to texts that words couldn’t on their own. Of course, not everyone is as passionate as we are about punctuation. Here are some fun ways for teachers and parents to drum up a little enthusiasm with young writers.

  • Personify Punctuation – To help kids understand the tone those little marks imply, invent a short description of the personal characteristics each mark might have if it was brought to life. (This can be done in writing or as part of a discussion.) Perhaps the question mark is a whiny three-year-old who hates following the rules and needs justification for everything. The exclamation point might be a cheerleader. 

  • Draw It Out Make posters or pictures to show each mark’s meaning artistically. For a group, assign different marks to different students, or a have a single child come up with images for all of the marks. In a classroom, these can be displayed; at home, these can go into a resource binder or on the wall near the child’s homework spot. Perhaps the period is a stop sign. Maybe red and yellow should be used in imagery for the exclamation point to show excitement and urgency. 

  • Take It to the Stage – Play a guessing game with kids just learning the basic punctuation marks. The adult should set up the game by choosing some simple words, then writing an exclamation point, a period, and a question mark on slips of paper to put into a paper bag. To play, the child must draw a mark from the bag, then say the designated word (“Yes.” “Me?” “Go!”) in the tone that fits the punctuation. The other player(s) should guess the mark. 

  • Make it Meaningful Of course, the reason punctuation really matters is that it affects a text’s meaning. One famous example is the (photo shopped) magazine cover that, without commas, seemed to say that celebrity chef Rachael Ray enjoys cooking her family and her pets.Another comma example that spawned many memes is the sentence “Let’s eat, Grandma!” whose meaning changes rather dramatically if the comma is removed. Or check out the way the Oxford, or serial, comma changes the meaning of a sentence in this popular meme, which features a rhinoceros and two of the United States’ most beloved presidents. You get the idea. Get kids talking: how does punctuation shape the meaning of their own writing? How would that meaning change if they were to choose different marks instead?

  • Ask an ExpertOlder students may enjoy these pieces  by well-established authors on punctuation.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Breakthrough Junior Challenge

There do not seem to be any shortages of exciting educational challenges lately. Our previous blog discussed the upcoming Global Math Challenge, sponsored by Sony Global Education. Also coming up is the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, another international competition. Contestants ages 13 to 18 have the opportunity to create short videos explaining a mathematical or scientific concept. Prize money will go to the winner as well as to his or her school, with a top individual prize of $250,000.

This initiative is supported by Breakthrough Prizes along with Khan Academy, a resource we often recommend to our students. Khan Academy offers instructional videos and practice exercises that students can use to bolster their understanding and skills. A contest encouraging students to create their own videos turns this learning modality on its head and offers a unique opportunity for rich academic engagement and creativity. Submissions are being accepted through October 7th and the winning video will be broadcast on the National Geographic Channel on November 8th.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Global Math Challenge to Test Math Skills

Want a fun, motivating way to push your students’ math skills? Sony Global Education is sponsoring the Global Math Challenge –an online math challenge held worldwide. The tech giant states that while “looking at math as a sport that everyone can take part in, [they] decided to create a worldwide math contest.” There will be questions for children and adults alike that encourage mathletes of all ages to flex their logical and critical thinking muscles. The challenge is segmented into like-age groups to ensure students are competing against like-aged peers.

Taking the math challenge is free, but if you want your global ranking it will cost you twelve dollars - unless you sign up using Edmodo Connect, a feature that enables login to third-party applications using Edmodo credentials. Edmodo is an app that is free for students and teachers and connects them with each other and the technology needed in the classroom.Sony Global Education has also made Global Math Challenge materials available on Edmodo Spotlight

At the end of the event, top scorers will earn special certificates to acknowledge their hard work and accomplishment. The tests are available in English, Japanese and Chinese. The questions were created by the Japan Prime Math Committee that has infused beautiful illustrations into each task to help math fans put the math puzzles into a real world context. The test creators share that these “images can help people to visualize problems and quickly come to conclusions on their own terms.”

This isn’t the first competition hosted by Global Math Challenge; the first English-Chinese challenge was held in March of this year, when over 22,000 students participated! This year’s Global Math Challenge kicks off September 27th. So head over to the Global Math Challenge website to sign up today!