Monthly Archives: September 2013

Is “Doogie Howser” acceleration through formal school our ideal?

An iconic TV series in the early 90’s features a teenager, Doogie Howser, who “earned a perfect score on the SAT at the age of six, completed high school in nine weeks at the age of nine, graduated from Princeton University in 1983 at age 10.” Then, he slowed down and took four looong years to get through medical school – I guess he had to slow down because scripting a tween as the M.D. lead of a hospital sitcom didn’t hit the target advertiser demographic.

“Completed high school in nine weeks.” Let that sink in deep for, like, a millisecond. Did that just slip by? Did it strain credulity? Did it sound great? Are you excited that self-paced digital learning can make this accelerated ‘learning’ happen for more and more Doogies in the near future? If only we can break out of that 19th century assembly-line seat-time mentality..

Hey, earlier is just better, right? I clearly remember attending a LAAMP-sponsored community meeting at an auditorium in Occidental College in 2000, where attending teachers were excitedly being informed from the stage that new state standards meant their students would be “tested on high level content they currently only get to in college.” I was stunned by this earlier-is-better strategy, thinking that we hadn’t really nailed most student’s learning of the good old high school stuff quite yet. By 2006 some unintended but damaging consequences of this value judgement that earlier is better were described by Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute’s Center for Educational Policy.

[In 2013 California dropped its earliest-in-the-nation requirement that all eighth graders take algebra. Here is the LAAMP final report on disappointing results from its 6 year $53M project in Los Angeles.]

Here is my rant: Stop this faster is better one dimensional talk. No more, “…so with self-paced online schooling Suzie could get her competency based GED at age 12!” Just like Doogie, our hero and model for success.

Having started UCLA at age 15 myself, I feel quite the laggard compared to this ideal. But then I also keenly experienced the social downside risk to acceleration – no sports, no girlfriends, no prom. Too young + too academically successful = stick to your geek math club friends. Seriously folks, scrambling the social institution that is high school for 14-18 year olds needs to be a consideration when you hear “…well when they finish the 3rd grade software, just advance ’em right to 4th and then if they can to 5th.” And one does hear it. What’s that you say? What about the non-digital aspects of learning? “Nah, it doesn’t matter where the teacher or the rest of their peers are! Speed is a goal! Get with it!”

Yes it’s exciting that some types of digital content enable quicker uptake. I’m saying quicker uptake as a primary goal is dangerous.

Here’s an analogy about learning in another domain, a more physical domain I think we intuitively understand better. Suppose you were taking guitar lessons. But rather than once a week in a guitar shop with a  teacher, and near daily practice, you were watching lessons on YouTube. And say there was a 20 hour playlist of 40 half-hour video lessons. Wow! That is easily watchable in a week! What’s that you say? Sure, I passed the online ‘competency’ quizzes and final. It was easy, man! Bam! Done! I just learned guitar! High school in 9 weeks!

Really? What was the purpose of “learning” guitar? The learner’s purpose, your purpose? Were you supposed to be able to, like, really play it? Have your fingers fret clean notes with automaticity? Feel motivated to play; enjoy playing? Experience playing in a band and making music? ‘Own’ playing it as a lifelong skill? Learn to read sheet music so that you could play new songs and more easily learn some other instrument too? Learn more about music in general? Understand key guitar features and why they work how they do? Launch you on a quest to conquer more and more challenging guitar playing, way beyond your training?

Or was the purpose more just a ‘badge’ to display. “Got in in one week!” “Got through 3rd grade math online in one month!” Hey, I got a good score, a good grade, what more do you want?

What gets lost in the conversation about acceleration is GOING DEEP in learning. There is another dimension to accelerate besides calendar time: accelerate diving deep. Use digital content to dive deeper. Don’t promote 12 year old college students as an ideal. Please, the social costs are too high. If you are testing for competency, test DEEP. No badge until you successfully perform a duo gig and earn tips at the local coffee shop.

Take extra time you find to dive deeper into 3rd grade math. As MIND Research Institute co-founder Dr. Matthew Peterson said, if a 3rd grader gets quickly through 3rd grade digital content then, “let’s get them a Ph.D. in 3rd grade math! And then a Nobel Prize in 4th grade math!” The vertical dimension, depth of learning, is bottomless in every content area.  For example, fractions concepts can open up a deeper exploration of rationals and irrationals.

Are you satisfied with how ‘deep’ the current learning demanded to beat the system is? How do you feel about the current pacing through content? Is what you want from digital tools to rip through inch-deep learning much faster?

I’m here to say, personally as well as pedagogically, the future can’t be about getting American history dates and people and quadratic formulae crammed into some 9 week high school frenzy. It’s not about 14 year olds in Ph.D. programs. Let’s use digital tools in order to get more powerful learning. Aim to go deep, not fast.

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Digital 1-2-3s Make Math Sense for Preschool Kids

Every parent can see that birth to 5 is a whirlwind of learning. Many parents strive to include informal learning activities like the ABC’s.  But you may be surprised to learn that no aspect of early education is more important to a child’s academic future than mathematicsResearch from Greg Duncan at the University of California, Irvine shows that early math skills in 5 year-olds are the single greatest predictor of later achievement.

So at a recent early childhood education conference in Chicago, I was excited to see policy leaders, researchers, corporations and foundations rallying around the importance of supporting our youngest learners, including in math.  Their vision for accomplishing it … well, I found that less exciting as the only presentation focused on digital content for 4 year olds was my own.

Understandably. The vast majority of digital content “out there” for kids is of low educational quality. I enjoy Sponge-Bob, if not Disney princesses, as much as anyone. But having a 4 year old gesture her way through random edutainment apps is hardly the “transformation” of learning you’ve been hoping for. And yet, digital content is ideal for rapid scale-up, and every year we “wait” for a non-digital solution to reach scale, we miss out on yet another cohort of 4 million more 4 year-olds in the U.S.

So how do you judge digital program quality? First, look for a program that is radically different. Second, look for early, consistent, rigorous results. At the K-5 level, there is a digital, neuroscience-based math program —  MIND Research Institute’s ST Math, that has shown potential for radical transformation of learning. ST Math has successfully doubled and tripled annual growth in math proficiency for Grade 2-5 students on state tests, as it presents math concepts as a full in-school curriculum of visual, language-free puzzles of virtual onscreen manipulatives.

If there exists a proven math program that teaches math visually, without requiring language proficiency or even reading skills, then what better age to apply it to than pre-readers – especially ones who don’t necessarily speak any English! ST Math is currently being piloted in select teacher-led, site-based Pre-K classrooms in Los Angeles. Imagine a teacher working with a 4-year old digital native, who is using a tablet to get literally “hands-on” with number sense.

If we want to level the education playing field before traditional schooling even starts, and lay a solid foundation across the nation for lifelong success in STEM fields, we need to start young and be bold. Digital, unconventional, deeper-learning tools like ST Math may be the transformation you’ve been looking for.

A version of this blog was published in the September issue of District Administration.

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