About Me

When not at work with students, I spend my time in my room either reading, calculating something using pen and paper, or using a computer. I read almost anything: from the pornographic to the profound, although my main interests are mathematics and physics. "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." -Erasmus

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The spiral is a mosquito coil

For a few weeks now I've been working part-time as a math and physics tutor for high school students. It's been a while--- I think last time I did tutor high school math and physics was more than five years ago--- and so the first thing I did was buy a few high school math textbooks. I was afraid, at first, that the texts would be of low quality. Fortunately, the school my student attends is progressive, and their math teachers have good taste. My high school textbook was probably a good sample of what goes around as average, and I never did learn mathematics from it.

I've always thought about the effectiveness of basic and secondary education because of an observation I made as an undergraduate struggling with math and physics. I graduated from a university that's consistently ranked as the best in the country, and so it struck me as ridiculous to see all these supposedly talented people failing their subjects, and I wondered why it was so. And so I started thinking on and off about what makes a good education, and part of the answer is the crummy basic education that we have. (Aside of course from bad teaching at the university level and bad study habits carried over from high school.)

Philippine high school education has a lot of problems: (1) teachers who do not know the subjects they are supposed to be teaching, (2) bad textbooks, (3) short school hours, and (4) our willingness to ape the latest education fads in the United States. 

Take physics teaching in high school. The physics education research effort (done by physicists, and not by people from the Colleges of Education) has produced a goodly set of Conceptual Survey Exams.  These conceptual surveys are used to check the understanding of the various concepts in physics. An example would be the Force Concept Inventory; it presents a set of situations given using non-technical language, and the test-taker is asked to interpret or make predictions. Each of the distracters in this multiple-choice exam are constructed so that they match what a pre-Newtonian thinker would answer. 

I've given this exam to many high school graduates and I'm routinely disappointed. Most of these students would be regarded as being part of the local elite, and routine disappointment should be a cause for alarm because if our best high school graduates have not mastered these basic notions, then there must be something seriously wrong with high school physics teaching. I would wager that the teachers themselves would fail such conceptual surveys; you can't teach what you don't know. 

One reason lies in the monopoly of the Colleges of Education when it comes to high school teaching in the public schools. If you look at the curriculum of the physics teaching majors, they are only required to learn the calculus-based introductory physics sequence and then half of the third year courses for physics majors.  Of the  universities and colleges that do offer a physics major, may of them do not even meet CHED guidelines on texts, faculty, and coursework. There is one horror story about a certain university whose physics majors never went beyond Young and Freedman's University Physics (an introductory physics textbook that people use in their first two years of university use; also sometimes used for teaching AP Physics). What people from DepEd don't seem to realize is that teachers of science and math in the high schools need to be specialists in order to teach their subjects well.

Bad textbooks also share the blame. This is an old issue, and one of the difficulties lie in the procurement process. There is a lot of money involved in selling high school textbooks, since adoption of a textbook means a monopoly at a school, and years of income on the part of the publisher and the textbook authors. 

Pricing is already an issue. I've tried to look for an online list of high school math textbooks, and I can't find one. I've also visited websites of publishers but the prices are not listed, but the binding quality provides a clue. Most high school textbooks that I see are printed on cheap newsprint bound with glue. This means the cost of printing isn't a lot, and there is probably a lot of money left over. The lack of transparency in the choice of textbooks provides an avenue for corruption; Richard Feynman has his own stories of how publisher's representatives appeal to greed when convincing textbook committees to adopt their textbooks. 

If you think about the money involved, you can see why there are lots of complaints about substandard textbooks. And it's not going to get better until we institutionalize transparency in the procurement process. Make the price list available, get user reviews from teachers. The Department of Education should setup a website that shows prices and user reviews of all textbooks used in K-12 education. The higher education market is more competitive precisely because of the ability of users to visit the websites of various schools and learn what textbooks are being used. A visit to amazon.com and a search for a particular textbook in the reviews and the forums allows people to easily rank textbooks in terms of price and quality. 

If you study in a government run school, unless you study in one of the special schools (For example, a school in the Philippine Science High School System, or one of the better local science high schools), you are likely to have insufficient school hours. A good high school will usually have school hours from 7am until around 3 or 4 pm. An ordinary government-run high school will have at least three shifts of students a day. One such shift, for example, runs from 6 am to around 10 am or about 4 hours of schooling per day. The no-classroom and teacher shortage claims of the Department of Education are thus a joke in light of this.

A case for sufficient school hours can be found in the success of such schools as the KIPP schools (Malcolm Gladwell has the story in Chapter 9 of his book Outliers); for a local example,  the school  run by the Bernidos (Ramon Magsaysay awardees) compares favorably in spite of the no-homework policy. Implementing three-shifts a day therefore, instead of increasing opportunities, just widens the gap between ordinary public schools and other schools with longer hours.  

Finally, let's examine the local tendency to borrow broken educational methods and education fads from the United States. When New Math was popular, the local textbooks almost immediately responded by adopting the style of the New Math textbooks in the US. I remember saving money and buying such a  text when I was in 6th grade (I was feeling ambitious and didn't know any better!). The math textbooks I used when I was in high school was trendy in that it used the so-called spiral method, but in reality the shape that our studies took was the shape of the mosquito coil (katol in the vernacular).

In the latest reform effort (the K-12 restructuring from K-10), people keep on going about Understanding by Design (UBD) and the so-called spiral approach. I've been reading the books of the Understanding by Design proponents , and comparing it with the local implementation and I feel embarrassed. There are good ideas in McTighe and Wiggins' text but the people who are asked to design curricula and materials are made to look like they're following instructions like automatons, without understanding. (An irony, when you think about it.) The point of understanding by design is to construct your lessons and choose the materials you use to meet preconceived objectives. These objectives, in turn, depend on what you mean by understanding a given subject. If your choice of objectives and activities do not foster understanding, then one ought to go back and rethink your plans.

But then again, if you're still stuck in denial (the classroom shortage is a thing of the past, etc, etc.), rethinking your plans is the last thing you'll do.

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