Posts Tagged ‘Greg Ashman’

One of the most intellectually stimulating books of the fall season is Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt‘s The Coddling of the American Mind. It is a formidable and persuasive critique of recent changes in American university campus culture. The new orthodoxy of “safe spaces” and “no platforming” was ripe for serious analysis and the authors have diagnosed the sources of what is termed “safetyism.”  Young people are being taught to “trust their feelings” and to call out the “goodies” and “baddies” in contemporary society. In a strange twist, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker.”

The two academics demonstrate a sound grasp of the “culture war” enveloping campus culture and correctly point out that “safetyism” poses a real threat to academic freedom on North American campuses.  As a child of the radical sixties, I was there when students fought to make the universities more open to new ideas, controversial speakers, and more democratic practices. Racism, bigotry and intolerance should be resisted and rejected. Having said that, it’s disconcerting to see today’s university students so quick to take offense and so inclined to silence those espousing different viewpoints.

While Lukianoff and Haidt correctly dissect the problem, they miss the mark in diagnosing the state of early childhood learning. The “decline of play” is plainly observable in today’s schoolyards and playgrounds. Overly protective parents, known as “helicopter parents,” are easy to spot in affluent and upper middle class school communities — and gravitate to independent schools.  It is simply wrong, in my estimation, to assume that “play learning” is endangered in pre-school, kindergarten, or early years education.

“Play-based learning” is ascendant in Canadian Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 3 education and is in no danger of disappearing. It is no exaggeration to say that “play learning” is the current catechism espoused by faculties of education and accepted, without question, by provincial education ministries. Since 2010-11, early leading has emerged as an education priority and provincial education departments, one after another, have changed their names to become the “Department of Early Childhood Development and Education.”

Where did Lukianoff and Haidt get the idea that “child’s play” was threatened in the primary grades?  Their primary source appears to be Erika Christakis, a Yale University child study professor and author of the 2017 book, The Importance of Being Little. Judging from her writings, she is an unabashed constructivist who sees great potential in “little children” and idealizes them “watching bulldozers on a construction site” or “chasing butterfies in flight.”  Surveying today’s preschool and kindergarten classrooms, most likely in New England, she claims that “learning has been reduced to scripted lessons and subject metrics that too often undervalue the child’s intelligence while overtaxing the child’s growing brain.” 

She is, in all likelihood, well acquainted with Ivy League prep schools. High and mismatched expectations, she contends, “wreak havoc on the family.” “Parents fear that if they choose the ‘wrong’ program, their child won’t get into the ‘right’ college.”  Such fears are “wildly misplaced,” according to Christakis, because young children are not only natural learners, but “exceptionally strong thinkers.”

Unstructured free play is good for little children and it does help to prepare them for the real, ‘rough-and-tumble’ world.  Where Christakis, Lukianoff and Haidt all go wrong is in setting up ‘free play’ in opposition to any form of early learning incorporating explicit teaching of core knowledge and skills. Claiming that it is harmful flies in the face of a great deal of recent education research informed by cognitive science.

Australian teacher-researcher Greg Ashman has effectively demolished the two essential claims about early learning made in The Coddling of the American Mind.  Free play may well be essential in learning social skills, but that does not mean it suffices for academic learning. Renowned Canadian education critic, Andrew Nikiforuk, once put it this way:  “If learning is so natural, why do we go to school?'”  The implicit answer: to learn something.

Pyschologist David C. Geary makes the helpful distinction between two types of learning, biological primary and biological secondary forms. Play is probably the best way to learn social skills, such as learning to work together, but not for learning academic abilities and skills.  The weight of research evidence, drawn from cognitive science, suggests that most children require more explicit instruction because learning requires some prodding, practice, and persistence.  Some students, particularly those with learning difficulties or socio-economic disadvantages, simply do not grasp the key ideas or master the fundamental skills without a measure of teacher-guidance.

Lukianoff and Haidt, citing Christakis, are critics of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the “Common Core Curriculum” and very much opposed to student testing in elementary grades. That may be why they are so inclined to see “testitis” creeping into the early grades.  While there is some evidence of it in American elementary schools, the same cannot be said for Canadian schools.  No homework is given in Kindergarten and only modest amounts in Grades 1 to 3. Provincial testing is administered starting in Grade 3 but it cannot be described as “high stakes” testing of the kind found at higher grades in the United States. 

Lukianoff and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind  offers a telling critique of what’s gone wrong on many university colleges.  Children from advantaged backgrounds may, from an early age, be subjected to academic pressures and discouraged from engaging in free play.  Parents with two degrees and homes full of books give privileged kids an early immersion in learning and, in many cases, have the added benefit of parents providing explicit instruction to fill gaps in understanding.  Over-parenting can and does produce coddled children , but it’s a stretch to claim that this is the real life experience of children from less favoured circumstances, raised in disadvantaged and marginalized communities.

Early learning programs in Canada, with few exceptions, are “play-based” and place considerable emphasis on nurturing social skills and supporting ‘student well-being.” Few Canadian early learning researchers would recognize the pre-schools and kindergartens as depicted in Lukianoff and Haidt’s otherwise impressive book.  In fact, it’s tempting to hypothesize that Canadian primary years programs are actually the nurseries for a younger generation who are so bubble-wrapped that “skinned knees” are treated as calamities.

Where’s the evidence that “play-learning” is imperiled in today’s pre-schools and kindergartens?  How prevalent is “helicopter parenting” and is it directed toward raising standards or to ‘school-proofing’ kids?  Is it fair to suggest that play learning and academic learning are mutually incompatible? Is “safetyism” what is actually being taught in kindergarten? 


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A recent New York Times commentary by American engineering professor Barbara Oakley has, once again, stirred up much public debate focused on the critical need for “Math practice” and why current “Discovery Math” methodologies are hurting students, and especially girls. “You and your daughter can have fun throwing eggs off a building and making paper-mache volcanoes, “ she wrote,but the only way to create a full set of options for her in STEM is to ensure that she has a solid foundation in math.”  Mathematics is “the language of science, engineering and technology,” Oakley reminded us. And like any language, she claimed, it is “best acquired through lengthy, in-depth practice.”

That widely-circulated commentary was merely the latest in a series of academic articles, policy papers, and education blog posts to take issue with the prevailing ideology in North American Mathematics education, championed by Professor Jo Boaler of Stanford University’s School of Education and her disciples.  Teaching the basics, explicit instruction, and deliberate practice are all, in Boaler’s view, examples of “bad math education” that contribute to “hating Math” among children and “Math phobia” among the populace. Her theories, promulgated in books and on the “YouCubed” education website, make the case that teaching the times tables and practicing “multiplication” are detrimental, discovering math through experimentation is vital, and making mistakes is part of learning the subject.

Boaler has emerged in recent years as the leading edu-guru in Mathematics education with a wide following, especially among elementary math teachers. Under the former Ontario Kathleen Wynne government, Boaler served as a prominent, highly visible member of the Math Knowledge Network (MKN) Advisory Council charged with advancing the well-funded Math Renewal Strategy.” Newsletters generated by the MKN as part of MRS Ontario featured inspirational passages from Jo Boaler exhorting teachers to adopt ‘fun’ strategies and to be sensitive to “student well-being.”

While Boaler was promoting her “Mathematics Mindset” theories, serious questions were being raised about the thoroughness of her research, the accuracy of her resources, and the legitimacy of her claims about what works in the Math classroom. Dr. Boaler had successfully weathered a significant challenge to her scholarly research by three Stanford mathematics professors who found fault with her “Railside School” study. Now she was facing scrutiny directed at YouCubed by cognitive science professor Yana Weinstein and New York Math teacher Michael Pershan.  Glaring errors were identified in YouCubed learning materials and the research basis for claims made in “Mistakes Grow Your Brain” seriously called into question. The underlying neuroscience research by Jason S Moser and his associates does not demonstrate the concept of “brain sparks” or that the “brain grows” from mistakes, but rather that people learn when made aware of their mistakes. 

Leading researchers and teachers associated with researchED are in the forefront of the current wave of evidence-based criticism of Boaler’s theories and contentions.  Australian teacher-researcher Greg Ashman, author of The Truth About Teaching (2018), was prompted by Jo Boaler’s response to the new UK math curriculum including “multiplication practice” to critically examine her claims. “Memorizing ‘times tables,’ “she told TES, was “terrible.” “I have never memorised my times tables,” she said. “I still have not memorised my times tables. It has never held me back, even though I work with maths every day.”  Then for clarification:” “It is not terrible to remember maths facts; what is terrible is sending kids away to memorise them and giving them tests on them which will set up this maths anxiety.”  

Ashman flatly rejected Boaler’s claims on the basis of the latest cognitive research. His response tapped into “cognitive load ” research and it bears repeating: “Knowing maths facts such as times tables is incredibly useful in mathematics. When we solve problems, we have to use our working memory which is extremely limited and can only cope with processing a few items at a time. If we know our tables then when can simply draw on these answers from our long term memory when required. If we do not then we have to use our limited working memory to figure them out when required, leaving less processing power for the rest of the problem and causing ‘cognitive overload’; an unpleasant feeling of frustration that is far from motivating.”

British teachers supportive of the new Math curriculum are now weighing-in and picking holes in Boaler’s theories. One outspoken Math educator, “The Quirky Teacher,” posted a detailed critique explaining why Boaler was “wrong about math facts and timed tests.” Delving deeply into the published research, she provided evidence from studies and her own experience to demonstrate that ‘learning maths facts off by heart and the use of timed tests are actually beneficial to every aspect of mathematical competency (not just procedural fluency).” “Children who don’t know their math facts end up confused,” she noted, while those who do are far more likely to become “better, and therefore more confident and happy, mathematicians.”

Next up was University of  Pennsylvania professor Paul L. Morgan, Research Director of his university’s Center for Educational Disabilities. Popular claims by Boaler and her followers that “math practice and drilling” stifle creativity and interfere with “understanding mathematical concepts” were, in his view, ill-founded. Routine practice and drilling through explicit instruction, Morgan contended in Psychology Today, would “help students do better in math, particularly those who are already struggling in elementary school.”  Based upon research into Grade 1 math achievement involving 13,000 U.S. students, his team found that, of all possible strategies, “only teacher-directed instruction consistently predicted greater first grade achievement in mathematics.”

Critiques of Jo Boaler’s theories and teaching resources spark immediate responses from the reigning Math guru and her legions of classroom teacher followers. One of her Stanford Graduate Education students, Emma Gargroetzi, a PhD candidate in education equity studies and curator of Soulscrutiny Blog, rallied to her defense following Barbara Oakley’s New York Times piece.  It did so by citing most of the “Discovery Math” research produced by Boaler and her research associates. She sounded stunned when Oakley used the space as an opportunity to present conflicting research and to further her graduate education.

Some of the impassioned response is actually sparked by Boaler’s own social media exhortations. In the wake of the firestorm, Boaler posted this rather revealing tweet: “If you are not getting pushback, you are probably not being disruptive enough.” It was vintage Boaler — a Mathematics educator whose favourite slogan is “Viva la Revolution.”  In the case of Canadian education, it is really more about defending the status quo against a new generation of more ‘research-informed’ teachers and parents.

Far too much Canadian public discourse on Mathematics curriculum and teaching simply perpetuates the competing stereotypes and narratives. Continued resistance to John Mighton and his JUMP Math program is indicative of the continuing influence wielded by Boaler and her camp. Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative Government is out to restore “Math fundamentals” and determined to break the curriculum gridlock.  The recent debate over Ontario Math education reform on Steve Paikin’s TVOntario program The Agenda featured the usual competing claims, covered familiar ground, and suggested that evidence-based discussion has not yet arrived in Canada.

What explains Professor Jo Boaler’s success in promoting her Math theories and influencing Math curriculum renewal over the past decade? How much of it is related to YouCubed teaching resources and the alignment with Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ framework? Do Boaler’s theories on Math teaching work in the classroom? What impact, if any, have such approaches had on the decline of Math achievement in Ontario and elsewhere?  When will the latest research on cognitive learning find its way to Canada and begin to inform curriculum reform?



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