Monday, February 22, 2010

Is Math Boring?

It's funny because I love math. I have always loved it, but my wife almost gets physically ill by the mention of trigonometry. If by some accident I happen to mention anything that could be construed as a mathematical concept or problem my wife sushh's me as quick as she can. Some people really do struggle to accept mathematics for the exciting and interesting explanation of how everything moves and exists in our universe, ok maybe that is overstating it a bit but you get my drift.

Well the question is who is right, Is Math boring? I obviously say no and here is my case to prove it. Is TV boring, well much of it is TV is not a good example I'll try again, Is space travel boring? Or are computer games boring? or what about movie special effects? or mobile phones? The web? Flying? Even the driving the car? They all to a degree employ mathematics to achieve what they are designed to. The easiest first space travel is all about math. Everything is based on distance, relative speeds and intersection points all normal mathematical concepts but vital in successful space travel.

The whole tech industry is built upon the shoulders of mathematics. All computers at the low levels only understand math. Everything you want a computer to do from play a game, send an email, watch a video, social networking, twitter etc everything is translated to mathematical functions for computers to understand. Your computer only looks like it knows what you want it to do, to your computer all it really is doing is solving mathematical problems for you all day long. Math really is the one and only common worldwide language, it is the only language that every community in the world has in common and understands. Mathematics comes from a greek word meaning leaning, study and science all very basic tenets of education.

Form my above argument I would say to be bored by mathematics is to be bored of life. I blame how and what we were taught in schools for this perception that math is boring because taught properly it should only emit wonder from students. But the teachers tried to drill into us formulas and learn of theorems when in reality we needed to see it applied in the real world to grasp how it effects us everyday.

Now ask my wife for her argument and her response is the same as nearly every bored student in math class "But I'll never need this when I leave school". I always counter that as she grew up working in the family shop she used it in a very practical way everyday dealing with money. But hey these differences of opinion is what makes life interesting, I have only one thing left to say one the subject…I'm right Q.E.D.

Does Video Kill the Math Teacher?

The question is can a math teacher be replaced by a video presentation or even a computer application. Most teachers would instantly jump to the answer no way! Well I would give a qualified agreement with the teachers on that. There is no computer program in the world or video class that can do everything that a math teacher does and has to deal with. But saying that let us look at what it can be achieved with modern computer programs and video software.

Video is only ever going to be a reproduction of what a teacher has done and is really only one-way interaction enabled. No good asking a video questions if you need clarification on a point. But consider a student who has a unmotivated and bored teacher (come on we've all had them in our time) they might actually be much better off with a video and the textbook. The big advantage of a video over a teacher is that the student is now in control. The student can pause it, try something out replay it and rewind to review parts if they want. The student can learn the topic at their own pace. This is the biggest problem of classroom teaching, students as we all know don't learn at the same pace and a teacher is forced to cater for the lowest common denominator, resulting in a number of bored students.

Teachers should have nothing to fear from video and applications that enable student to self learn. The job of a teacher is to enable students to improve and access the concepts and information they need. They should have no fear for a third party be it tutor, video or application that is helping a student to achieve in math. You could even go as far and say to a teacher in reality to do their job right they should introduce these for use at home, both video and web based applications to improve math because in this way they are giving the kids the information and a choice of avenues to learning the subject matter at hand.

There are now fantastic services available on the web for getting video presentations of different topics and they really are a boon to modern day students in getting in touch with math enabling them to learn at their own pace. If I was a teacher I wouldn't worry about arriving at work and seeing a big 52" screen where my desk used to be or Robbie the robot because who would there be for the students to complain about?

Monday, February 15, 2010

How much homework is too much homework?

I’ve heard this debate about 1,000 times. “How much homework should I give?” well as with nearly everything (outside of math) there is no right answer, and never will be. Even when you are right you are wrong. In a single class there will be students who don’t need any homework because they get it already but then there will be others who have as usual coasted through class with their heads in the clouds and really only learn with threats and deadlines. These people need homework badly and plenty of it because it’s damn near the only education they are going to get.

My advice is to set homework that makes knowing the concepts key and once you have that the homework at hand should be a snap. This will mean that the students who get it already will breeze through their homework but the coasters will need to sit down and learn the subject at hand.

Yeah I agree but how to you do that?

Well how about you flip the homework on its head and ask the students to set original homework for themselves that explains the topic and then explain how the answer was derived. This almost seems counter intuitive “Let them set their own homework?”, well yeah think about it for a second to do this right the student needs to know the topic to enable them set homework that will explain it. If the student doesn’t have a clue what they are talking about they will need to figure it out first to do this.

Or ask them to write a 20 line paragraph that would explain the concept of the topic at hand to next year’s class. Again simple for the people who know but a struggle for those who don’t.

I am not a fan of lists of problems or reams of regurgitated facts, in my opinion this is just a waste of time and hides the core of the education task. Our job is to teach the concepts and ensure that the concepts are understood. The internet has also made my homework strategy more valuable because there are sites and programs readily available that will give students the answer to any problem. These instant answers really only bypass the need for comprehension. I have yet to find a site that will give students instant answers to my homework (maybe there is a start-up in there somewhere) . You need to give homework that encourages students to learn the concepts not the details. Like the old adage “can’t see the wood for the trees” you need to make sure that your students are not blinded from what’s important in math by the pressing need to get their homework out of the way because it’s spoiling my xbox game time.

So next time you have the same old debate about the amount of homework to give go with the answer “Just enough”, because then you’ll always be right.

Book Publishers to go the way of the Dodo

Book publishers must have seen this coming for a very long time and what surprises me most is that they have done absolutely nothing about it. They haven’t learnt the lessons of the music industry and decided that if they just ignore the problem it would go away. Well it hasn’t!
We’re talking about the web and electronic delivery of content. The music industry first ignored it then when it was too big to ignore tried to squash it. When that failed they tried to cosy up to it with Apple etc, but now they resemble a once great white shark twitching on the shore struggling to survive.
I reckon the book publishers are just ending the “ignore it” stage but for all that has gone before it looks like they are going to attempt the same trick that failed for the music industry.
It really doesn’t have to be this way. Publishers should see that an easy to use spur of the moment system where consumers can just purchase content at the click of a button can only mean more sales and less costs. But the fear of losing control of the supply line is what is stopping publishers embrace the new order. Publishers fear that if they go pure digital what do they really offer the author that the author can’t just do for themselves?
Well I think the publishers are underselling themselves. Imagine for a second a world where anyone who wanted to be an author could just write a book and “publish” it themselves. We would end up with thousands of new books every day and because there would be no critical analysis of quality 99% of them would be rubbish. This would make finding a good book incredibly difficult. What publishers really offer is that they can become the gatekeepers to ensure that most of the rubbish never reaches the mass market. We should be able to know that if we purchase a Harper Collins book then at the very least the author is able to write and has been approved worthy of mass publication.
Also digital delivery has huge advantages for the publisher, author and consumer. The publisher doesn’t have to spend a fortune on printing presses and delivery of the physical book. The publishing process would be to create a simple download of an e-book and make it available on the publishing network. Then the delivery process is consumer driven by the download and purchase of the e-book. This purchase will occur and complete without any input from the publisher.
The stumbling block at the moment seems to be the publishers want to hang on to the established life-cycle of new books. First they selling the hardback edition for about double the price of the paper back. Then 4 months later when all the people who really wanted the book have brought the expensive version they release a paper back for the masses. This doesn’t really work in the e-book world because there is only 1 edition. Also consumers are not willing to spend the $15 for a new paperback on an e-book nor should they have to. The costs of “publishing” an e-book are pennies. Consumers are willing to pay the author and publisher their cut but not to pay for non existing costs.
We can only hope that publishers wake up to the new world before it’s too late because I do believe they have a role to play. But if they continue fight and procrastinate then the world will move on without them and we’ll end up in world where the publishers will be consigned to history.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Has Math changed that much in the last 2 years?

This is something that really bugs me. Every few years the math books are updated and changed by the publishing companies for no good reason but to squeeze more money out of the schools and parents. Why they are let do this I’ll never know.
These new editions have at best a few cosmetic changes and an updated front cover. Then the schools all gradually move to this “new” book and this forces the parent to shell out for a new book instead of the old one or a second-hand one. The “new” book is in reality has exactly the same content as the old one because it has to cover the same curriculum. The standards in California for instances, haven’t changed in 20 years so the math taught is exactly the same and hasn’t changed in 20 years. Usually if you check through the old and “new” books most of the chapters are word for word exactly the same and a few chapters are re-named...that’s it!
For me there is a simple solution, just don’t put up with it. The school districts should just pick a book they are happy with and leave it. When a new edition comes out ignore it, finally when the math book is out of print and no second-hand ones are freely available allow the students to pick a newer edition of the same book and gradually move over to that. If all districts went with this the nonsense would stop because there would be no point in re-printing the same content in a new edition if everyone just ignored it, except for the people who were in the market for a new book anyway. These people would have just brought the old book if no new edition was printed because they’d know it was basically the same anyway.
This would free up resources and effort in the publishing houses to do something real and not waste their time re-hashing the same stuff over and over again. It would also allow the publishing houses to get more content online and do more for students and teachers in the way of resources and benchmark testing and standards tracking. All these extra goodies are losing resources because of this endless cycle of uselessness.
Nice dream I guess but let’s face it, we live in a different world and we just have to put up with this messing from the publishing houses. But if we can just get our own houses in order let everyone else sort them selves out the problem might eventually work its self out.
Will the publishing houses do the right thing? Only time will tell but I wouldn’t hold my breath.