Out on Good Behavior: Teaching Math while Looking Over Your Shoulder

16th April 2021

Cheery Friday Greetings to our Learning How to Learners!

Book of the Week

Out on Good Behavior: Teaching Math while Looking Over Your Shoulder, by Barry Garelick. We greatly enjoyed and got a lot out of this brief, sardonic memoir of an outstanding math teacher in an era when teaching math in public schools is becoming increasingly divorced from what neuroscience has revealed about how students actually learn math. Garelick’s witty observations give a sense of what’s going on in a way that would be difficult for most parents to discover—and some of Garelick’s observations are priceless: “I once told my eighth-grade algebra class that my classroom is one place where they won’t hear the words ‘growth mindset’—to which the class reacted with wild applause. Someone then asked what my objections to ‘growth mindset’ were.  I said I didn’t like how it was interpreted: Motivational cliches like ‘I can’t do it…yet’ supposedly build up confidence leading to motivation and success. I believe it’s the other way around: success causes motivation more than motivation causes success. [Or, as researchers Szu-Han Wang and Richard Morris have noted: “we rapidly remember what interests us, but what interests us takes time to develop.” And this Slate Star Codex article about growth mindset remains timeless.] 

Garelick presciently observes: “Where students frequently see through ineffective educational fads, people in education—after buying into such theories—see what they want to see.” Out on Good Behavior is well worth reading if you care about what your child is learning—or not learning—in school, particularly when it comes to math.

An Important Key to Finland’s Vaunted Education System

Mathematics professor Robert Craigen has observed that a US degree in math education is “practically free of any content that would qualify one for the professional designation of ‘mathematician.’” This means that math educators within the US know little to nothing of any form of higher-level math. It could be reasonably argued that schools of education have a vested interest in ensuring that teachers take plenty of credits in teacher preparation and “teacher-lite” math, as opposed to the tougher math courses demanded of regular college math students. 

As this fascinating comparison of Kumon and Russian forms of mathematics notes: “…a recent evaluation of elementary mathematics training found only one percent of traditional graduate teaching programs [within the US] earned an A for adequately covering critical math content.” 

By contrast, Finland’s vaunted educational system requires elementary, middle, and high school teachers to receive an entire undergraduate degree in their subject—not a watered-down set of a few simplified courses—before going on to receive their master’s degree in teaching. This puts teachers in Finland on par with professionals such as doctors and lawyers. (Only preschool teachers in Finland require BA in education.)

For more information about Finland’s educational system, see:

  • Teacher education in Finland
  • Teacher Status in Finland (Google for Education) Notably, 40% of students in Finland take the vocational upper secondary studies tract, which means that Finland is ensuring a straightforward pathway for vocational students—unlike the US. As the report notes: “Completion of the Finnish Matriculation Examination (undertaken in the General upper secondary education tract) or a post-secondary level vocational qualification provides general eligibility for higher education (which is also free of charge though highly competitive).” In other words, everybody deserves the right to a free education, but you’d better prove yourself worthy of taxpayer’s money if you want to get it.

Would higher teacher salaries for US teachers encourage movement toward a Finnish type, higher quality education system that earned more societal respect? Or would a higher salary without a shift to higher expectations in teacher training and qualifications simply eliminate any incentive to improve the current US system? Fans of Finnish methods of teaching like to bring to our attention that the Finnish system places great trust in their teachers to be doing the right thing without testing and comparisons.  But such trust is not given lightly—teachers clearly must do a great deal to earn that trust. Americans thinking they can just stride right in and be like the Finns by removing tests and comparisons —without upgrading the training and character expected of teachers under the Finnish system—are clearly setting up US systems for even more problems.

[Hat tip, Professor Kenzen Chen]

As we observed in a Cheery Friday email nearly five years ago, it’s important to realize there is much controversy about Finland’s educational “achievements.” Finland has scored high on PISA, but lower on other internationally recognized tests. In fact, while countries like Chile and Korea have increased by more than 20 points for their 8th-grade students over the past decade on the 2011 TIMSS test, Finland’s performance has declined by an eye-opening 38 points.

Some see PISA as skewing their assessments to favor countries that conform to specific theories espoused by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which runs PISA. Professor Yong Zhao, author of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World (a book we hold in high esteem), argues here that PISA results should be ignored entirely. He is not alone in his criticism. You might be surprised to learn, as Professor Zhao discusses in his book, that students in different countries can get quite different questions on the PISA—meaning that entire countries can vary markedly in their rankings due to behind-the-scenes decisions on which questions to score and include. If you have an interest in the testing controversy, check out our friend Manabu Watanabe’s series of intriguing articles and follow the links. See also “Exceptional Learning Results From Exceptionally Good Textbooks: Singapore Yes! Finland No!

Old-fashioned Math Tutoring Website

As Ivy Style clothiers notes: “Everyone Is right wing when it comes to the things they care about.”  In other words, “when people are passionate about something—baseball, poetry, clothing—they tend to venerate tradition, to wish to conserve and maintain established standards of excellence, and to resist change.”  Whatever your inclinations, if you really want your child to learn math, you may wish to check out this old-fashioned math tutoring website, which features tutors with expertise in math that’s virtually unequalled by most of today’s US math teachers. (Keep in mind that Barb’s previous work as a Russian translator aboard Soviet trawlers during the Cold War have made her particularly attuned to the perils of indoctrination qua education.)

Experience: Being a Bartender in Antarctica

Speaking of adventures, it’s our opinion that there’s little that beats adventure to help keep your mind open to new learning. As long time LHTLers know, Barb met her Hero Husband at the South Pole Station in Antarctica—this article gives a bit of a sense of what it was like: 

“I’d wanted to visit Antarctica ever since I was a child, but in the end it was a wearying job in Silicon Valley that led me to make the leap. After a particularly bad day at the office, I thought, “Where’s the farthest I can go to get away?” To my delight, a quick internet search revealed work was available at three US research stations. I convinced the right people I was the man they needed to look after the liquid nitrogen and helium used as coolants for the radio telescopes at the South Pole Station.

“The bar there, probably the most remote on Earth, was called Club 90 South. Despite being surrounded by ice for 800 miles in every direction, and 8,000 miles away from the local bars I knew, it seemed completely familiar to me: there were six bar stools, a scattering of tables and couches, a pool table, TV and music….”

Ah, memories! Are you at a point where you are thinking to try a memorable experience?  Let this be your nudge…

Last But Not Least!

Here’s a fine write up by Coursera about a talk Barb recently gave for Courserians: Connecting the Dots: Dr. Barbara Oakley on the Science of How We Learn. Enjoy!

That’s all for this week. Have a happy week in Learning How to Learn!

Barb, Terry, and the entire Learning How to Learn team

View more Cheery Friday e-mails >