Children

Homework revisited

At the same time as a group of French parents and teachers have called for a two-week boycott of homework (despite the fact that homework is officially banned in French primary schools), and just after the British government scrapped homework guidelines, a large long-running British study came out in support of homework.

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International Comparisons

Compulsory Education: When it starts and how long it lasts

Around the world, for the most part, compulsory schooling starts at 6, although some start at 7, and a very few at 5 or even younger. There is less consensus about how long compulsory education should last, but 9 years is the most common length, with 10 years running a close second.

Although most countries are at least consistent within their own borders, a few countries have no national policy, but instead operate at a state/provincial level. Thus, in the United States, commencement age ranges from 5-7, depending on state, and length of compulsory education varies from 9 years to 13. Similarly, in Canada, commencement age is either 6 or 7, and students are required to attend school for 10 to 13 years. Australia and Germany likewise show variability between states/Länder, but not to the same extent.

International Comparisons

  Commencement of compulsory schooling No. of years compulsory education
Australia 6 9-101
Austria 6 9
Belgium 6 12
Canada 6/71 10-131
Czech Republic 6 9
Denmark 7 9
Finland 7 9
France 6 10
Germany 6 9-10 full-time + 3 part-time1
Greece 6 9
Hungary 6 12
Iceland 6 10
Ireland 6 9
Italy 6 9
Japan 6 9
Korea 6 9
Luxembourg 6 10
Netherlands 5 12 + 1 part-time
New Zealand 62 10
Norway 6 10
Poland 7 12
Portugal 6 8
Singapore 6/7 104
Spain 6 10
Sweden 7 9
Switzerland 6 9
United Kingdom 53; 4 in Nth Ireland 11
United States 5/6/71(most commonly 6) 9-131
  1. varies between states/provinces
  2. 6 is compulsory, but 5 is universal
  3. 5 is compulsory, but many children start at 4
  4. 6 years are compulsory; an extra 4 is universal but not compulsory

United States: Variation between States

State/Territory

Compulsory Education

Alabama

7-16

Alaska

7-16

Arizona

6-16 (or completion of grade 10)

Arkansas

5-17

California

6-18

Colorado

7-16

Connecticut1

5-18

Delaware

5-16

District of Columbia

5-18

Florida

6-16

Georgia

6-16

Hawaii

6-18

Idaho

7-16

Illinois

7-16

Indiana

7-16

Iowa

6-16

Kansas

7-18

Kentucky

6-16

Louisiana

7-18

Maine

7-17

Maryland

5-16

Massachusetts

6-16

Michigan

6-16

Minnesota

7-16

Mississippi

6-17

Missouri

7-16

Montana

7-16

Nebraska

6-17

Nevada

7-17

New Hampshire

6-16

New Jersey

6-16

New Mexico

5-18

New York

6-16

North Carolina

7-16

North Dakota

7-16

Ohio

6-18

Oklahoma

5-18

Oregon

7-18

Pennsylvania

8-17

Rhode Island

6-16

South Carolina

5-17

South Dakota

6-16

Tennessee

6-17

Texas

6-18

Utah

6-18

Vermont

6-16 (or completion of grade 10)

Virginia

5-18

Washington

8-18

West Virginia

6-16

Wisconsin

6-18

Wyoming

7-16 (or completion of grade 10)

[information taken from http://www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/50/51/5051.htm]

Canada: Variation between Provinces/Territories

Province/Territory

Compulsory Education

Alberta

6-16

British Columbia

5-16

Saskatchewan

7-16

Manitoba

7-16

Ontario

6-16

Northwest Territories

6-16

Québec

6-16

New Brunswick

5-18

Nova Scotia

6-16

Prince Edward Island

7-16

Newfoundland

6-16

Yukon

6yr8mth-16

[information taken from http://www.hslda.ca/provlaws.asp ]

School structure: Segregating by ability

This refers to the custom in some countries of having completely separate schools for students of different academic ability (generally an "academic" school versus a "vocational" or "technical" school), rather than to the practice of streaming within schools.

No country that I know of segregates children at primary level, but a number choose to do so at secondary level. Germany and Hungary do so at a younger age than most, although England, the Netherlands and Switzerland also offer the option of attending a school that caters only for academic or non-academic students (as opposed to enforced segregation). The practice of separate schools is a little more common at upper secondary level: France, Italy, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Switzerland join the ranks of those enforcing a choice, and Spain provides the option. Australia, Canada, Ireland, Wales, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United States don't have the practice of having separate schools for those of different ability, although Canada did to some extent, and some of these schools still exist.

School structure: Progression between classes

There is no strong majority in favor of either allowing students to automatically move on to the next class or requiring them to reach a certain standard. Australia, England, Ireland, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Wales automatically move their students on, Canada does at the primary level and sometimes does at the secondary level, and Italy generally does at the primary level but mostly doesn't at the secondary level. France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Switzerland require their students to reach a certain standard. And Sweden and the United States sometimes do and sometimes don't.

Textbook selection

There's an interesting range among countries as regards school textbooks. In some cases, it's entirely up to the teacher. In other cases, school boards or other official bodies determine what will be used. Some Governments supply a list of "approved" textbooks, from which texts must be chosen.

Teachers have free choice in Australia, Canada, England & Wales, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, and some American States. Recommended lists are provided in Canada, Hungary, Spain, and Switzerland. An official list of approved texts is provided in France, Germany, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and in about half of American States.

Resources

More details comparing different countries' educational systems can be found at:

http://www.ibe.unesco.org/international/ICE/46english/46natrape.htm

http://www.inca.org.uk/pdf/comparative.pdf [note this a pdf file]

http://www.eurydice.org/

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International Comparisons of Achievement

Two large-scale international studies have become established to compare countries' performance in the core subjects of literacy, mathematics and science.

TIMSS: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

TIMSS is an international study involving 50 countries that assesses math and science achievement at four year intervals. It has been running since 1995. Students are assessed in the 4th and 8th years of school, and in their final year. The next assessment round will be in 2007.

The study uses four benchmarks (advanced, high, intermediate, low) to gather a more complete picture of trends within a country. Thus we can not only approve high performing countries like Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Korea, and Hong Kong, for having about 1/3 or more of their 8th grade students reach the advanced benchmark in mathematics, and about 2/3 to 3/4 reaching the high benchmark, but we can also note, for example, that although the Netherlands doesn't have high numbers reaching the advanced level (some 10% of 8th graders and 5% of 4th graders), it does at least do an excellent job of educating all its students, since 97% of its 8th graders and 99% of its 4th graders reach the low benchmark. It also enables us to spot trends across time — for example, in general, countries have improved their levels at the lower end, but not at the high end.

Mathematics

Grade 8 Advanced Benchmark

Students can organize information, make generalizations, solve non-routine problems, and draw and justify conclusions from data. They can compute percent change and apply their knowledge of numeric and algebraic concepts and relationships to solve problems. Students can solve simultaneous linear equations and model simple situations algebraically. They can apply their knowledge of measurement and geometry in complex problem situations. They can interpret data from a variety of tables and graphs, including interpolation and extrapolation.

Grade 8 High Benchmark

Students can apply their understanding and knowledge in a wide variety of relatively complex situations. They can order, relate, and compute with fractions and decimals to solve word problems, operate with negative integers, and solve multi-step word problems involving proportions with whole numbers. Students can solve simple algebraic problems including evaluating expressions, solving simultaneous linear equations, and using a formula to determine the value of a variable. Students can find areas and volumes of simple geometric shapes and use knowledge of geometric properties to solve problems. They can solve probability problems and interpret data in a variety of graphs and tables.

Grade 8 Intermediate Benchmark

Students can apply basic mathematical knowledge in straightforward situations. They can add, subtract, or multiply to solve one-step word problems involving whole numbers and decimals. They can identify representations of common fractions and relative sizes of fractions. They understand simple algebraic relationships and solve linear equations with one variable. They demonstrate understanding of properties of triangles and basic geometric concepts including symmetry and rotation. They recognize basic notions of probability. They can read and interpret graphs, tables, maps, and scales.

Grade 8 Low Benchmark

Students have some basic mathematical knowledge. The few items at this level provide some evidence that students can do basic computations with whole numbers without a calculator. They can select the two-place decimal closest to a whole number. They can multiply two-place decimal numbers by three-place decimal numbers with calculators available. They recognize some basic terminology and read information from a line on a graph.

Grade 4 Advanced Benchmark

Students can apply their understanding and knowledge in a wide variety of relatively complex situations. They demonstrate a developing understanding of fractions and decimals and the relationship between them. They can select appropriate information to solve multi-step word problems involving proportions. They can formulate or select a rule for a relationship. They show understanding of area and can use measurement concepts to solve a variety of problems. They show some understanding of rotation. They can organize, interpret, and represent data to solve problems.

Grade 4 High Benchmark

Student can apply their knowledge and understanding to solve problems. Student can solve multistep word problems involving addition, multiplication, and division. They can use their understanding of place value and simple fractions to solve problems. They can identify a number sentence that represents situations. Students show understanding of three-dimensional objects, how shapes can make other shapes, and simple transformation in a plane. They demonstrate a variety of measurement skills and can interpret and use data in tables and graphs to solve problems.

Grade 4 Intermediate Benchmark

Students can apply basic mathematical knowledge in straightforward situations. They can read, interpret, and use different representations of numbers. They can perform operations with three and four-digit numbers and decimals. They can extend simple patterns. They are familiar with a range of two-dimensional shapes and read and interpret different representations of the same data.

Grade 4 Low Benchmark

Students have some basic mathematical knowledge. Students demonstrate an understanding of whole numbers and can do simple computations with them. They demonstrate familiarity with the basic properties of triangles and rectangles. They can read information from simple bar graphs.

from http://timss.bc.edu/PDF/t03_download/T03_M_Chap2.pdf

2003 Performance

In 2003, the international averages were:

Benchmark Grade 4 Grade 8
advanced 9% 7%
high 33% 23%
intermediate 63% 49%
low 82% 74%

There is quite a wide variation around these means. For example, Singapore is head and shoulders above everyone, scoring 44% advanced, 77% high, 93% intermediate, 99% low at grade 8, and 38% advanced, 73% high, 91% intermediate, 97% low at grade 4. The only countries that come close are also Asian: Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (for Grade 8; grade 4 figures weren't available). The highest of the remaining countries at grade 8 was Hungary at 11% advanced, 41% high, 75% intermediate, 95% low, and at grade 4 England at 14% advanced, 43% high, 75% intermediate, 93% low -- a substantial difference in results! But still a vast improvement over those at the bottom of the table. Here's 2 tables roughly grouping countries, using the top performing country in each group as a benchmark:

Grade 8 advanced high intermediate low
highest performing countries (Singapore) 44% 77% 93% 99%
Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Japan        
above average countries (Hungary) 11% 41% 75% 95%
Hungary, Netherlands, Belgium, Estonia, Slovak Republic, Australia, United States        
slightly below average countries (Malaysia) 6% 30% 66% 93%
Malaysia, Russian Federation, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, England, New Zealand, Scotland        
below average countries (Romania) 4% 21% 52% 79%
Romania, Serbia, Sweden, Slovenia, Italy, Bulgaria, Armenia        
really below average countries (Cyprus) 1% 13% 45% 77%
Cyprus, Moldova, Macedonia, Jordan, Indonesia, Egypt, Norway, Lebanon, Palestinian National Authority, Iran, Chile, Philippines, Bahrain, South Africa, Tunisia, Morocco, Botswana, Saudi Arabia, Ghana        

note that the range at the bottom end is still very large; although most of the countries in the last category at least got over 50% to the low benchmark, 8 did not -- the worst only got 9% through.

Grade 4 advanced high intermediate low
highest performing countries (Singapore) 38% 73% 91% 97%
Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Chinese Taipei        
above average countries (England) 14% 43% 75% 93%
England, Russian Federation, Belgium, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary        
slightly below average countries (Cyprus) 6% 30% 66% 93%
Cyprus, United States, Moldova, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand        
below average countries (Scotland) 4% 21% 52% 79%
Scotland, Slovenia, Armenia, Norway        
really below average countries (Philippines) 1% 13% 45% 77%
Philippines, Iran, Tunisia, Morocco        

note that there are substantially fewer countries' results available at grade 4

You can find out more about international comparisons of achievements in mathematics, science and reading at the official website for TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) & PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study): http://timss.bc.edu/

The full 2003 Mathematics Report can be downloaded at: http://timss.bc.edu/timss2003i/mathD.html

Science

Grade 8 Advanced Benchmark

Students demonstrate a grasp of some complex and abstract science concepts. They can apply knowledge of the solar system and of Earth features, processes, and conditions, and apply understanding of the complexity of living organisms and how they relate to their environment.

They show understanding of electricity, thermal expansion, and sound, as well as the structure of matter and physical and chemical properties and changes. They show understanding of environmental and resource issues. Students understand some fundamentals of scientific investigation and can apply basic physical principles to solve some quantitative problems. They can provide written explanations to communicate scientific knowledge.

Grade 8 High Benchmark

Students demonstrate conceptual understanding of some science cycles, systems, and principles. They have some understanding of Earth’s processes and the solar system, biological systems, populations, reproduction and heredity, and structure and function of organisms. They show some understanding of physical and chemical changes, and the structure of matter. They solve some basic physics problems related to light, heat, electricity, and magnetism, and they demonstrate basic knowledge of major environmental issues. They demonstrate some scientific inquiry skills. They can combine information to draw conclusions; interpret information in diagrams, graphs and tables to solve problems; and provide short explanations conveying scientific knowledge and cause/effect relationships.

Grade 8 Intermediate Benchmark

Students can recognize and communicate basic scientific knowledge across a range of topics. They recognize some characteristics of the solar system, water cycle, animals, and human health. They are acquainted with some aspects of energy, force and motion, light reflection, and sound. Students demonstrate elementary knowledge of human impact on and changes in the environment. They can apply and briefly communicate knowledge, extract tabular information, extrapolate from data presented in a simple linear graph, and interpret pictorial diagrams.

Grade 8 Low Benchmark

Students recognize some basic facts from the life and physical sciences. They have some knowledge of the human body and heredity, and demonstrate familiarity with some everyday physical phenomena. Students can interpret some pictorial diagrams and apply knowledge of simple physical concepts to practical situations.

Grade 4 Advanced Benchmark

Students can apply knowledge and understanding in beginning scientific inquiry. Students demonstrate some understanding of Earth’s features and processes and the solar system. They can communicate their understanding of structure, function, and life processes in organisms and classify organisms according to major physical and behavioral features. They demonstrate some understanding of physical phenomena and properties of common materials. Students demonstrate beginning scientific inquiry knowledge and skills.

Grade 4 High Benchmark

Students can apply knowledge and understanding to explain everyday phenomena. Students demonstrate some knowledge of Earth structure and processes and the solar system and some understanding of plant structure, life processes, and human biology. They demonstrate some knowledge of physical states, common physical phenomena, and chemical changes. They provide brief descriptions and explanations of some everyday phenomena and compare, contrast, and draw conclusions.

Grade 4 Intermediate Benchmark

Students can apply basic knowledge and understanding to practical situations in the sciences. Students demonstrate knowledge of some basic facts about Earth’s features and processes and the solar system. They recognize some basic information about human biology and health and show some understanding of development and life cycles of organisms. They know some basic facts about familiar physical phenomena, states, and changes. They apply factual knowledge to practical situations, interpret pictorial diagrams, and combine information to draw conclusions.

Grade 4 Low Benchmark

Students have some elementary knowledge of the earth, life, and physical sciences. Students recognize simple facts presented in everyday language and context about Earth’s physical features, the seasons, the solar system, human biology, and the development and characteristics of animals and plants. They recognize facts about a range of familiar physical phenomena — rainbows, magnets, electricity, boiling, floating, and dissolving. They interpret labeled pictures and simple pictorial diagrams and provide short written responses to questions requiring factual information.

from http://timss.bc.edu/PDF/t03_download/T03_S_Chap2.pdf

2003 Performance

In 2003, the international averages were:

Benchmark Grade 4 Grade 8
advanced 7% 6%
high 30% 25%
intermediate 63% 54%
low 82% 78%

There is, again, wide variation around these means. Singapore is again head and shoulders above everyone. The only countries that come close are also Asian: Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (for Grade 8; grade 4 figures weren't available). The highest of the remaining countries at grade 8 was Hungary at 11% advanced, 41% high, 75% intermediate, 95% low, and at grade 4 England at 14% advanced, 43% high, 75% intermediate, 93% low — a substantial difference in results! But still a vast improvement over those at the bottom of the table. Here's 2 tables roughly grouping countries, using the top performing country in each group as a benchmark:

Grade 8 advanced high intermediate low
highest performing countries (Singapore) 33% 66% 85% 95%
Singapore, Chinese Taipei        
above average countries (Republic of Korea) 17% 57% 88% 98%
Republic of Korea, Japan, Hungary, England, Hong Kong, Estonia        
slightly above average countries (United States) 11% 41% 75% 93%
United States, Australia, Sweden, New Zealand, Slovak Republic, Netherlands, Lithuania, Slovenia, Russian Federation, Scotland        
slightly below average countries (Israel) 5% 24% 57% 85%
Israel, Latvia, Malaysia, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, Belgium, Jordan, Norway        
below average countries (Serbia) 2% 16% 48% 79%
Serbia, Macedonia, Moldova, Armenia, Palestinian National Authority, Egypt, Iran        
really below average countries (Chile) 1% 5% 24% 56%
Chile, South Africa, Cyprus, Bahrain, Indonesia, Lebanon, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, Botswana, Ghana        

again the range at the bottom end is still very large; although many of the countries in the last category at least got over 50% to the low benchmark, 7 did not -- the worst only got 13% through.

Grade 4 advanced high intermediate low
highest performing countries (Singapore) 25% 61% 86% 95%
Singapore, England, Chinese Taipei, United States, Japan        
above average countries (Russian Federation) 11% 39% 74% 93%
Russian Federation, Hungary, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Latvia, Hong Kong        
slightly below average countries (Scotland) 5% 27% 66% 90%
Scotland, Moldova, Netherlands, Lithuania, Slovenia, Belgium        
really below average countries (Cyprus) 2% 17% 55% 86%
Cyprus, Norway, Armenia        
really below average countries (Philippines) 2% 6% 19% 34%
Philippines, Iran, Tunisia, Morocco        

note that there are substantially fewer countries' results available at grade 4

You can find out more about international comparisons of achievements in mathematics, science and reading at the official website for TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) & PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study): http://timss.bc.edu/

The full 2003 Science Report can be downloaded at: http://timss.bc.edu/timss2003i/scienceD.html

PIRLS

PIRLS is an international study of reading literacy involving 35 countries. It began in 2001, and is intended to take place every five years. It assesses performance at year 4 (around 10 years of age), although in a few cases the students are in their 3rd or 5th year of formal schooling. The PIRLS 2001 assessment was based on eight different texts of 400 to 700 words in length – four literary and four informational. Test items were designed to measure four major processes of reading comprehension:

  • Focus on and Retrieve Explicitly Stated Information.
    The student needed to recognize the relevance of the information or ideas presented in the text in relation to the information sought, but looking for specific information or ideas typically involved locating a sentence or phrase (approximately 20% of the assessment).
  • Make Straightforward Inferences.
    Based mostly on information contained in the texts, usually these types of questions required students to connect two ideas presented in adjacent sentences and fill in a “gap” in meaning. Skilled readers often make these kinds of inferences automatically, recognizing the relationship even though it is not stated in the text (approximately 40%).
  • Interpret and Integrate Ideas and Information.
    For these questions, students needed to process the text beyond the phrase or sentence level. Sometimes they were asked to make connections that were not only implicit, but needed to draw on their own knowledge and experiences (approximately 25%).
  • Examine and Evaluate Content, Language, and Textual Elements.
    These questions required students to draw on their knowledge of text genre and structure, as well as their understanding of language conventions and devices (approximately 15%).

23 of the 35 countries had average reading scores significantly above the international average of 500; the range was large, with the highest scoring country (Sweden) scoring 561, compared to the lowest scoring 327 (Belize). I've grouped them into five categories according to performance. As with the TIMSS results, the highest performing country in the group is the one whose average score is given:

  average range1
highest performing countries (Sweden) 561  
Sweden, Netherlands, England, Bulgaria, Latvia, Canada, Lithuania, Hungary, United States, Italy, Germany, Czech Republic   542-561
above average countries (New Zealand) 529  
New Zealand, Scotland, Singapore, Russian Federation, Hong Kong, France, Greece   524-529
average countries (Slovak Republic) 518  
Slovak Republic, Iceland, Romania, Israel, Slovenia, Norway   499-518
below average countries (Cyprus) 494  
Cyprus, Moldova, Turkey, Macedonia   442-494
really below average countries (Colombia) 422  
Colombia, Argentina, Iran, Kuwait, Morocco, Belize   327-422

1. the difference between the country with the lowest average and the one with the highest average

It should be noted that the range of difference between the highest 5% and lowest 5% of students in most countries was 200 to 300 points -- similar to the range in average performance across countries.

In all countries, girls had significantly higher achievement than boys. Italy had the smallest difference, with an 8-point difference compared an 11-point or greater difference for all other countries. The international average was 20 points. Countries with a difference of 25 points or more included Moldova, New Zealand, Iran, Belize and Kuwait.

For more details on countries' performance, see http://timss.bc.edu/pirls2001i/pdf/P1_IR_Ch01.pdf

Although the PIRLS, like the TIMSS, used benchmarks, the performance on the benchmarks as a whole for each country doesn't seem to be available. However, you can read about benchmark items and countries' achievements on particular ones at http://timss.bc.edu/pirls2001i/pdf/P1_IR_Ch03.pdf

The full 2001 Literacy Report can be downloaded at: http://timss.bc.edu/pirls2001i/PIRLS2001_Pubs_IR.html

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Using computers in schools

Nowadays every school has to have computers. I don't refer to legal requirementbut to perception. Schools are judged on how many computers they have. It would be more to the point if they were judged on their computer-savvy.

I'm a fan of computers; my computer is a vital part of my work. I believe computer literacy is as important for our children to acquire as any other "basic skill". But I'm not a fan of the wholesale introduction of computers into our schools, particularly the junior ones. How many computers a school has is not the issue - the issue is, how do they use them?

In many cases, the answer is: poorly.

The reasons are simple enough. Foremost, the teachers have insufficient training and experience with computers. Relatedly, computers are not yet an integrated part of the school curriculum, and every school and teacher re-invents the wheel, trying to find good software, trying to work out how to fit it into the classroom curriculum, trying to work out schedules to make sure every student gets a fair go, struggling with the lack of technical support. And of course, in many cases (perhaps most), the computers are old, with the associated problems of being more likely to have technical problems, being slow, limited in memory, incompatible with current software, and so on.

The most important problems schools have with computers:

  • lack of financial resources (to buy enough computers, up-to-date computers, enough printers and other peripherals, licenses for good software, technical support)
  • the inability of teachers to know how to use the computers effectively
  • difficulty in integrating computers into the school / classroom curriculum (problems of use, of scheduling, of time)

Using computers effectively is much more than simply being able to type an essay or produce a graph. Parents and educators who deplore the obsession with computers in schools see computers as eroding children's basic skills and knowledge, because they only see computers being used as copy-and-paste and making-it-pretty devices. But computers have potential far beyond that.

Computers can be used to help:

  • extend the scope of searches
  • retrieve precisely targeted data with greater speed and accuracy
  • increase the amount of data held ready for use
  • sift relevant data from irrelevant
  • turn data into information

The true value of a computer isn't seen until the user can use it not only as a presentation tool (for making work attractive), and as a productivity tool (for producing work more quickly, effectively, thoroughly), but also as a cognitive tool.

Using computers as cognitive tools

A cognitive tool helps you think.

Many people thought computers would revolutionize education by providing individual instruction in the form of tutorials. In particular, as a means of drilling students. Drilling can be helpful to overlearn a skill to achieve automaticity, but it doesn’t help transfer to meaningful problems. That is, you can learn a skill, you can rote-learn facts, but drilling doesn't help meaningful learning - it doesn't teach understanding.

Although computer tutorials have become somewhat more sophisticated, they still only present a single interpretation of the world - they don’t allow students to find their own meaning. They don't teach students to reflect on and analyze their own performance.

“I do not believe that students learn from computers or teachers — which has been a traditional assumption of most schooling. Rather, students learn from thinking in meaningful ways. Thinking is engaged by activities, which can be fostered by computers or teachers.” (Jonassen, p4)

So, the computer itself isn't the issue - the issue, as always, is what you do with it. For example, when the Web is simply used as a source of material that can be downloaded and pasted without thought, then no, it is not of value. But when the learner searches the Web, evaluates the information, finds the gold in the dross, uses that to construct a knowledge base, to develop meaning, then yes, it is a valuable resource.

Computers can support meaningful learning by

  • reducing time spent on mechanical tasks such as rewriting, producing graphs, etc
  • helping find information
  • helping organize information
  • making it easier to share information and ideas with others

Related articles/sites on the Web:

A recent news articles on the subject of compulsory laptops at a Seattle school

New York Times articles about computers in education: Technology critic takes on computers in schools ; Making the most of the Internet's potential for education

An Atlantic monthly column: The computer delusion

A Boston Globe column about computers for young children: Computers, software can harm emotional, social development

References: 

Jonassen, David H. 2000. Computers as Mindtools for schools: Engaging critical thinking. (2nd ed.) NJ: Prentice-Hall

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The Montessori method

Many parents enrol their children in Montessori preschools because they are an "educational" way of getting childminding - if you're going to put your child in a creche, why not put them in a preschool instead - or because they want to give their child a "head start" on education. Quality preschool education is a rarity and Montessori are certainly leaders in the field.

My own children have been involved with Montessori since they were three.Like many parents, I came to Montessori education more by accident than design, and my belief in the system has grown over the years. When a Montessori primary (elementary) class opened in time for my older child, I was very pleased.

It is probably fair to say that parents send their children to a Montessori preschool because they provide a quality preschool education, but they send their children to Montessori schools because they have become converts to the Montessori approach and/or because they have deep dissatisfactions with the traditional education system.

I admit freely that both are true of me. Would I have been so keen on sending my son to a Montessori primary if I had been happier at school myself (rather than bored out of my tree)? But my sons' involvement with Montessori has only deepened my commitment and appreciation of its approach.

It is interesting that Montessori education seems particularly attractive to parents of sons. The preponderance of boys in my sons' classes may well be an anomaly, but I observe that those children who come to us at an older age, having had problems in mainstream (traditional) schools, are invariably boys. It is a truism today that the traditional education system favors girls. The Montessori environment and program doesn't penalize boys for their difficulty in sitting still; their later maturing; their need to touch and manipulate objects. The Montessori program is based around the individual. Thus, for example, the student determines when they'll do maths and for how long. This doesn't mean the child can choose never to do maths, merely that the child has control within the limits set by the teacher.

One of the most fundamental, and misunderstood, tenet of the Montessori approach is encapsulated in the phrase "Follow the child".

"Follow the child" does not mean let the child do what he wants. It is simply an acknowledgment that the child has her own pattern - that we need to take into account where the child is at, rather than impose our idea of what the child should learn now. Montessori saw the child's development as passing through four developmental phases, with a pattern of intense growth reaching a peak and then declining, within each phase.

Each of these developmental phases is marked by:

  • a specific developmental goal
  • a readily identifiable direction to reach that goal
  • specific sensitivities that facilitate reaching that goal

This scenario is the basis for the Montessori structure of 3-6, 6-9, 9-12 classes. The age-bands reflect the developmental phases, and the program and environment provided for that phase reflects the sensitivities characteristic of that phase.

The color of these triangles reflects the similarity between, for example, the developmental phases at 0-6 and 12-18, a similarity that has been remarked on by many parents and teachers of adolescents.

Maria Montessori was ahead of her time in recognizing that babies were active learners, and it is also instructive to note that she saw development continuing to age 24. However, for the most part, Montessori education has concentrated on the periods 3-6 (preschool) and 6-12, with particular emphasis on the preschool years. This emphasis no doubt reflects the much greater void that existed in preschool education.

It is also partly an historical artifact - when Montessori decided (on the basis of her amazing success with so-called "uneducable" children) to try her methods on normal children, she had no opportunity to work with school-age children, as they were already in school. However, an opportunity arose to have custody of children below school age in a reclaimed public-housing project in Rome. Hence, quite by accident, Montessori's first successes were with preschool children. The success of her methods was of course, also much more obvious with this group of children, since few children below the age of six received any sort of education.

You can now read Maria Montessori's 1909 book online. There is an illustrated edition available at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/montessori/method/method.html

References: 

Lillard, Paula Polk. 1996. Montessori Today: A comprehensive approach to education from birth to adulthood. NY: Schocken Books. Toronto: Random House.

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Suzuki & Montessori

Some comments on the commonalities between the Suzuki approach to learning music and the Montessori approach to education.

My sons have both been in Montessori since they were three (they are now 8 and nearly 11, respectively). My elder son started learning the violin from a Suzuki teacher when he was around five, and now learns the piano (again, from a Suzuki teacher). My younger son has been learning the violin for the last two years. Over the years I have been somewhat intrigued by the number of parents who, like me, are both Montessori and Suzuki parents.

It is perhaps indicative that we talk about Montessori parents, and Suzuki parents. It is our children who are in these systems, why do we include the parents? I imagine it’s because both philosophies require the parent to be involved, to understand what’s involved in the approach, and do their part.

Why do these approaches go hand-in-hand? Well, they share a number of similarities.

Both Suzuki and Montessori respect the child, and feel that learning must be approached from where the child is, not where we think they should be.

Both believe in leading by example — not by telling (haranguing) the child to do what the adult thinks best, but by providing an example of the behavior the adult wants the child to copy.

Both provide the child with an orderliness that permits the child to learn. In the Montessori classroom this is expressed in the orderliness of the materials — everything has a place, every task has a sequence. In Suzuki, this is expressed through the set order of music pieces expressly designed to take the student step by step through the techniques necessary to learn the relevant skills.

Both philosophies stress the importance of providing the right environment to nurture the child’s developing character and self-image. Both feel that individuals learn at their own pace, not according to some standard drawn up by educators. In both methods, age does not determine what work the child is doing — they do what is appropriate for their skill level, not their age.

Both Montessori and Suzuki appreciate that repetition is the key to mastery.

Both philosophies believe that education is about bringing out potential, rather than “instructing”. The adult is a director rather than a dictator.

References: 

Thompson, Linda K.: Montessori and Suzuki. The NAMTA Journal, v 15 (2).

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Why learning is harder as we get older

Children learn. It’s what they do. And they build themselves over the years from wide-eyed baby to a person that walks and talks and can maybe fix your computer, so it’s no wonder that we have this idea that learning comes so much more easily to them than it does to us. But is it true?

There are two particular areas where children are said to excel: learning language, and learning skills.

References: 

Brown, R. M., & Robertson E. M. (2007). Off-Line Processing: Reciprocal Interactions between Declarative and Procedural Memories. The Journal of Neuroscience. 27(39), 10468 - 10475.

Brown, R. M., Robertson E. M., & Press D. Z. (2009). Sequence Skill Acquisition and Off-Line Learning in Normal Aging. PLoS ONE. 4(8), e6683 - e6683.

Cash, C. D. (2009). Effects of Early and Late Rest Intervals on Performance and Overnight Consolidation of a Keyboard Sequence. Journal of Research in Music Education. 57(3), 252 - 266.

DeKeyser, R., Monner, D., Hwang, S-O, Morini, G. & Vatz, K. 2011. Qualitative differences in second language memory as a function of late learning. Presented at the International Congress for the Study of Child Language in Montreal, Canada.

Dorfberger, S., Adi-Japha E., & Karni A. (2007). Reduced Susceptibility to Interference in the Consolidation of Motor Memory before Adolescence. PLoS ONE. 2(2), e240 - e240.

Ferman, S., & Karni A. (2010). No Childhood Advantage in the Acquisition of Skill in Using an Artificial Language Rule. PLoS ONE. 5(10), e13648 - e13648.

Ferman, S. & Karni, A. 2011. Adults outperform children in acquiring a language skill: Evidence from learning an artificial morphological rule in different conditions. Presented at the International Congress for the Study of Child Language in Montreal, Canada.

Karni, A. 2011. A critical look at ‘critical periods’ in skill acquisition: from motor sequences to language skills. Presented at the International Congress for the Study of Child Language in Montreal, Canada.

Nemeth, D., & Janacsek K. (2010). The Dynamics of Implicit Skill Consolidation in Young and Elderly Adults. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. 66B, 15 - 22.

Robertson, E. M., Press D. Z., & Pascual-Leone A. (2005). Off-Line Learning and the Primary Motor Cortex. The Journal of Neuroscience. 25(27), 6372 - 6378.

Stambaugh, L. A. (2011). When Repetition Isn’t the Best Practice Strategy: Effects of Blocked and Random Practice Schedules. Journal of Research in Music Education. 58(4), 368 - 383.

Steele, C. J., & Penhune V. B. (2010). Specific Increases within Global Decreases: A Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Investigation of Five Days of Motor Sequence Learning. The Journal of Neuroscience. 30(24), 8332 - 8341.

Wymbs, N. F., & Grafton S. T. (2009). Neural Substrates of Practice Structure That Support Future Off-Line Learning. Journal of Neurophysiology. 102(4), 2462 - 2476.

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Social factors impact academic achievement

A brief round-up of a few of the latest findings reinforcing the fact that academic achievement is not all about academic ability or skills.Most of these relate to the importance of social factors.

Improving social belonging improves GPA, well-being & health, in African-American students

References: 

Walton, G. M., & Cohen G. L. (2011). A Brief Social-Belonging Intervention Improves Academic and Health Outcomes of Minority Students. Science. 331(6023), 1447 - 1451.

Stout, J. G., Dasgupta N., Hunsinger M., & McManus M. A. (2011). STEMing the tide: using ingroup experts to inoculate women's self-concept in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 100(2), 255 - 270.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg R. P., Dymnicki A. B., Taylor R. D., & Schellinger K. B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development. 82(1), 405 - 432.

Le Prell, C. G., Hensley B. N., Campbell K. C. M., Hall J. W., & Guire K. (2011). Evidence of hearing loss in a ‘normally-hearing’ college-student population. International Journal of Audiology. 50(S1), S21-S31 - S21-S31.

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Maybe it has nothing to do with self-control

I recently reported about a finding that refines a widely-reported association between self-regulation and academic achievement. This association relates to the famous ‘marshmallow test’, in which young children were left alone with a marshmallow, having been told that if they could hold off eating it until the researcher returns, they would get two marshmallows.

References: 

McGuire, J. T., & Kable, J. W. (2013). Rational Temporal Predictions Can Underlie Apparent Failures to Delay Gratification. Psychological Review, 120(2), 395–410. doi:10.1037/a0031910

Baumeister, R. F., & Scher, S. J. (1988). Self-defeating behavior patterns among normal individuals: Review and analysis of common self-destructive tendencies. Psychological Bulletin, 104, 3–22. doi:10.1037/ 0033-2909.104.1.3

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Are children really so much better at learning a second language?

Most people believe that an adult learner can't hope to replicate the fluency of someone who learned another language in childhood. And certainly there is research to support this. However, people tend to confuse these findings - that the age of acquisition affects your representation of grammar - with the idea that children can learn words vastly quicker than adults. This is not true. Adults have a number of advantages over children:

  • they usually have more and practiced strategies available to them,
  • they have a wider vocabulary in their native language (which makes it easier to find similarities between languages),
  • they have (for a while) a greater working memory capacity,
  • they are more likely to have experience of other languages, and of language learning.

For all these reasons, adults can usually learn more words faster than children.

Part of the reason for the belief is that children seem to learn their native language "by magic". While there is certainly something magical about the way they pick up grammar, their learning of new words doesn't come under the same category. In fact, children are quite slow at learning new words, learning on average:

12 - 16 months: 0.3 words/day

16 - 23 months: 0.8 words/day

23 - 30 months: 1.6 words/day

30 mths - 6 yrs: 3.6 words/day

6 yrs - 8 yrs: 6.6 words/day

8 yrs - 10 yrs: 12.1 words/day

(from Paul Bloom's (2000) "How Children Learn the Meanings of Words")

Original language can be completely forgotten

The following research is also interesting, since it exposes another cherished myth. A study1 of adults who were born in Korea but adopted by French families in childhood, found not only that they had no conscious memory of Korean, but that imaging showed no difference in brain activation when they heard Korean compared to any other unknown foreign language (activation patterns were different when they heard French).

I don't, however, know the age of the children when they were adopted. It would also be interesting to know whether such children would learn their original language with greater facility - this would imply that present imaging techniques are insufficiently subtle to pick up some differences.

References: 

Pallier, C., Dehaene, S., Poline, J.-B., LeBihan, D., Argenti, A.-M., Dupoux, E. & Mehler, J. 2003. Brain Imaging of Language Plasticity in Adopted Adults: Can a Second Language Replace the First? Cerebral Cortex, 13 (2), 155-161.

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