Thursday, November 03, 2016

Singapore teaching of maths IS better: Pupils taught using the technique shot ahead of their peers

Children make more progress in maths when teachers use Singapore-style methods, according to an Oxford study.

Researchers found pupils shot ahead of their peers when taught the traditional Asian way, which focuses on mastering core principles as 'building blocks'.

The 'mastery' method introduces core concepts, such as times tables, addition and subtraction, gradually until learners are confident.

Ideas are broken down into small steps, which means using real life objects to illustrate a point, before moving on to drawings and then concepts.

It is a departure from trendy, 'child-centred' methods which favour games and memorising facts. Experts have long warned such lessons foster only a shallow understanding of maths.

The Oxford University study comes amid a drive to bring Singapore-style teaching to Britain's schools to boost numeracy.

Britain came 26th in the latest international rankings for teenage numeracy by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, while Singapore came second.

Researchers monitored pupils learning with Inspire Maths, a Singapore-style textbook being trialled in schools by the Department for Education.

The Singapore method begins by allowing pupils to gain confidence with maths by playing with objects or pictures.

There is then a second stage of drawing pictures representing the objects, and only later do they gradually start to add numbers to their drawings. By contrast, many pupils in Britain are introduced to both maths and number symbols at once.

But figures and signs are often difficult for children to understand and many lose confidence in the classroom.

Lead author James Hall said: 'We found positive evidence that Inspire Maths benefited children's maths achievement.

'This boost to progress was surprising because pupils had only been in a classroom setting for a short period'.

The study involved two groups of children aged five to six – a total of 550 – learning maths in 12 English schools in 2015 to 2016.

The first group learned maths as normal for the first term, and then in the second term switched to using the Inspire Maths textbook.

The second group used the textbook for both terms, and made better overall progress than the first group.

Inspire Maths is published by Oxford University Press and is based on My Pals are Here, which is used in most Singaporean primary schools.

In July, schools minister Nick Gibb announced £41million over four years to fund a network of 'mastery specialist teachers'.

Jill Cornish, maths director at OUP, said: 'We now have clear evidence that a mastery approach can make a real difference to maths classrooms, and we support the Government's moves to support it'.

It comes six years after Michael Gove claimed schools in the Far East were putting Britain's to shame.

In 2010 the then education secretary said improvements must be made if our schools were to compete with nations such as China and Singapore.


Most college students think America invented slavery, professor finds

For 11 years, Professor Duke Pesta gave quizzes to his students at the beginning of the school year to test their knowledge on basic facts about American history and Western culture.

The most surprising result from his 11-year experiment? Students’ overwhelming belief that slavery began in the United States and was almost exclusively an American phenomenon, he said.

“Most of my students could not tell me anything meaningful about slavery outside of America,” Pesta told The College Fix. “They are convinced that slavery was an American problem that more or less ended with the Civil War, and they are very fuzzy about the history of slavery prior to the Colonial era. Their entire education about slavery was confined to America.”

Pesta, currently an associate professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, has taught the gamut of Western literature—from the Classics to the modern—at seven different universities, ranging from large research institutions to small liberal arts colleges to branch campuses. He said he has given the quizzes to students at Purdue University, University of Tennessee Martin, Ursinus College, Oklahoma State University, and University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

The origin of these quizzes, which Pesta calls “cultural literacy markers,” was his increasing discomfort with gaps in his students’ foundational knowledge.

“They came to college without the basic rudiments of American history or Western culture and their reading level was pretty low,” Pesta told The Fix.

Before even distributing the syllabus for his courses, Pesta administered his short quizzes with basic questions about American history, economics and Western culture. For instance, the questions asked students to circle which of three historical figures was a president of the United States, or to name three slave-holding countries over the last 2,000 years, or define “capitalism” and “socialism” in one sentence each.

Often, more students connected Thomas Jefferson to slavery than could identify him as president, according to Pesta. On one quiz, 29 out of 32 students responding knew that Jefferson owned slaves, but only three out of the 32 correctly identified him as president. Interestingly, more students— six of 32—actually believed Ben Franklin had been president.

Pesta said he believes these students were given an overwhelmingly negative view of American history in high school, perpetuated by scholars such as Howard Zinn in “A People’s History of the United States,” a frequently assigned textbook.

What’s more, he began to observe a shift in his students’ quiz responses in the early 2000s. Before that time, Pesta described his students as “often historically ignorant, but not politicized.” Since the early 2000s, Pesta has found that “many students come to college preprogrammed in certain ways.”

“They cannot tell you many historical facts or relate anything meaningful about historical biographies, but they are, however, stridently vocal about the corrupt nature of the Republic, about the wickedness of the founding fathers, and about the evils of free markets,” Pesta said. “Most alarmingly, they know nothing about the fraught history of Marxist ideology and communist governments over the last century, but often reductively define socialism as ‘fairness.’”

Pesta also noted that, early on, his students’ “blissful ignorance was accompanied by a basic humility about what they did not know.” But over time he said he increasingly saw “a sense of moral superiority in not knowing anything about our ‘racist and sexist’ history and our ‘biased’ institutions.”

“As we now see on campus,” Pesta said, “social justice warriors are arguing that even reading the great books of Western culture is at best a micro-aggression, and at worst an insidious form of cultural imperialism and indoctrination.”

Pesta, an outspoken critic of Common Core, said he believes that these attitudes will become more pronounced moving forward, due to Common Core architect David Coleman’s rewrite of Advanced Placement American and European history standards.

Pesta argues that Coleman, now president of the College Board, “has further politicized the teaching of history, reducing the story of Western culture to little more than a litany of crimes, exploitations, and genocides, while simultaneously whitewashing the history of ideologies like socialism and communism.”

Despite no longer giving the quizzes, Pesta told The Fix that he continues “to seek effective ways to teach students the literature of Western culture, which it is not only alien and complex, but often condemned by students before it is truly encountered.”

“We must absolutely teach those areas where Western culture has fallen short, but always with the recognition that such criticism is possible because of the freedoms and advantages offered by Western culture,” he said.


No-offence culture of American campuses hurts Australia too

A chap in America, let’s call him the Bernard Salt of Rhode Island, recently wrote a grumpy little letter to his local newspaper about the poor sartorial choices made by women of a certain age who wear yoga pants. Boom. The cult of taking offence reared up, offended women gathered in their yoga pants to protest, social media lit up and the organiser took to radio stations, expressing outrage over “Bernard’s” criticism of her choices. Sure enough, it made news across the globe, from the BBC to the ABC and The Sydney Morning Herald with nary a question asked about the ramifications of the growing predilection to take offence.

To be sure, America is the home of the modern-day propensity to find offence. If this was a cult called Scientology, progressives would be carefully deconstructing its concerning presence in modernity. But the cult of taking offence is a slyer virus because it is largely unchecked. And it’s running rife on university campuses, where it threatens to do the most damage.

As Caitlin Flanagan wrote last year in The Atlantic, campus students who race to find offence are the inheritors of three decades of identity politics. In the lead up to Halloween this week, student fraternity leaders at Tufts University sent an email warning fraternity members not to wear: “inappropriate, offensive, or appropriative costumes”, or “outfits relating to tragedy, controversy or acts of violence”, or costumes that appropriate cultures or “reproduce stereotypes on race, gender, sexuality, immigrant, or socio-economic status”. Why? Because the dean of student affairs at Tufts warned of university and police investigations and the “wide gamut of disciplinary sanctions” if students engage in actions that “make others in our community feel threatened or unsafe, or who direct conduct towards others that is offensive or discriminatory”.

Indiana University’s Affirmative Action Office found a student guilty for reading Notre Dame v The Klan, a book that pays tribute to student opposition to the Ku Klux Klan, because a student was offended by the book’s cover. Oberlin College in Ohio released a list of areas that demand trigger warnings, everything from classism to privilege. Students at other universities have demanded trigger warnings for The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. And on it goes.

The cult of taking offence has become a determined game of what Jonathan Rauch has called the “offendedness sweepstakes”, and it keeps lowering the bar on what words, ideas and freethinking analysis are to be mowed down to protect the hold identity politics has over academe. Political correctness, the soul brother of identity politics, may have started out briefly in some quarters as a sweet-sounding search for a very civil utopia imbued with respect for minorities. Now it is the weapon of choice in the pursuit of power and control over ideas, words, books, teaching and much more.

Students seek “safe spaces” to avoid ideas they don’t like and even comedians are not welcome: Chris Rock no longer appears on campus because students are more interested in not offending anyone than sharp humour that may offend. Jerry Seinfeld has said he has been warned to stay off campuses too because they’re too PC.

And the result, best described by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, has been the coddling of the American mind where emotional reasoning now determines the limits of university debates. “A claim that someone’s words are ‘offensive’ is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feeling of offendedness,” they write. “It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong” and must apologise or be punished for committing the offence.

This made-in-America phen­om­e­non is no longer an only-in-America one. Students studying archeology at University College London were recently given permission to leave class if they encounter “historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatising” — in other words, if they are freaked out by bones.

The coddling of the Australian student mind is under way too. Last week at the University of NSW a well-meaning lecturer teaching a class on 20th-century European history told his students he felt obliged to issue a trigger warning about material they would cover. At the same university last year, a lecturer teaching a course on terrorism and religion issued a trigger warning too. Isn’t the trigger in the title? Isn’t history replete with traumatic events?

The Australian asked UNSW, the University of Sydney, Melbourne University, Monash University, Queensland University, Queensland University of Technology and the Australian National University in Canberra about their policies, formal or informal, about trigger warnings. Those that responded issued bland comments about having no formal policy, with some offering statements such as this one from Melbourne University: “We encourage academics to be sensitive to student needs and some may choose to give warnings about confronting content.” Or this from Merlin Crossley, UNSW’s deputy vice-chancellor education: “Some of our academics and teaching teams may choose to provide trigger or content warnings depending on course materials and in some cases possible confidential sensitivities of their students.”

In 2017 Monash University will introduce what it calls “a radical and far-reaching reform of our education and pedagogy” involving an “optional inclusion of content warnings where appropriate”.

While Monash rejects any dilution of learning outcomes and multimedia introduces a new perspective, this is how the censoring of intellectual debate and the cosseting of student minds started in the US. Trigger warnings and safe spaces run counter to why universities exist: they are places where students should be encouraged to engage in open and robust debate, exercise free speech and test and challenge orthodoxies in the greater pursuit of knowledge and progress.

The anti-intellectual consequences of trigger warnings led the dean of students at the University of Chicago in August to send a welcome letter to each new student advising them that the university “does not support so-called trigger warnings”, it won’t cancel controversial speakers and “it does not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own”.

The lack of intellectual diversity on American campuses has led scholars from the west coast to the east to form the Heterodox Academy, an advocacy group that seeks greater intellectual diversity on campus in the face of rigid ideological orthodoxies that discourage both academics and students from speaking freely.

Co-founded by Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University and author of The Righteous Mind — Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, the push for greater intellectual diversity has earned praise from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Under the headline “A confession of liberal intolerance”, Kristof wrote: “We progressives … we’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.” That could be the motto for our national broadcaster, sections of Fairfax media and much of academe here in Australia.

After all, try finding the Australian equivalent of Chicago University’s letter for new students entering Australian universities. Go looking for an Australian version of the Heterodox Academy or even a refreshingly honest progressive such as Kristof. You would have a better chance of finding a Tasmanian tiger.

The Australian asked each of the above-mentioned Australian universities whether they support the letter from University of Chicago to its freshers advising them of the university’s commitment to freedom of expression and opposition to trigger warnings because students are “encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn without fear of censorship”. Our leading universities responded with thunderous silence about that apparently thorny question.

Indeed, there are few signs of Australian academics trying to ward off the American-born disease taking hold on our campuses. Quite the contrary. QUT vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake told this newspaper last month that the university did not choose to be associated with the current public debate about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. That’s unfortunate because section 18C, which makes it unlawful for someone to act in a manner that is reasonably likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of their race or ethnicity, is the legislative extension of trigger warnings that stifle open debate and infantilise students.

Praise then for psychology professor Joe Forgas from UNSW who wants to see all universities, not just those in Australia, follow the example of the University of Chicago and strongly and explicitly reaffirm their commitment to freedom of expression and the diversity of views. “We have always taken this freedom for granted, but in the current climate of rampant identity politics and political correctness, it is important to give these values added and explicit emphasis,” Forgas tells The Australian.

The psychology professor is also opposed to trigger warnings because any “device that is designed to impose ideological self-censorship on academics can be hugely costly in terms of imposing limits on free speech and making lecturers hesitant to cover important but controversial topics”.

Forgas is a rare breed of scholar in Australia. One of very few Australian members of the Heterodox Academy, Forgas says he joined because defending the completely free exchange of ideas “is absolutely essential not only for the proper functioning of universities, but also for the long-term health of liberal societies”.

That some groups or individuals might find the discussion of controversial topics unpleasant cannot be a justification for limiting free speech on campuses, he says: “Quite the contrary, it is especially those issues that are controversial that need to be openly discussed and argued about if they are ever to be resolved.”

The alternative is the closing of the student mind, those same minds entrusted to universities to become our next generation of intellectually curious and emotionally resilient thinkers. As Flanagan asked, perhaps rhetorically: “O Utopia. Why must your sweet governance always turn so quickly from the Edenic to the Stalinist?”

But back to the bloke from Rhode Island. He would have been safer staying away from yoga pants and challenging the practice of yoga as a case of cultural appropriation. For seven years, yoga teacher Jen Scharf taught a free yoga class for students with disabilities at Canada’s University of Ottawa.

Until last year, when she was effectively shamed into shutting down her classes because Ottawa University’s student union was concerned over the cultural appropriation behind practising yoga.

Where does it end? That depends on where we start when it comes to freedom of expression, and currently too many self-indulgent Westerners are starting in entirely the wrong place.


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