Category Archives: education

Teaching by example

A science teacher friend told me that “teaching by real life example” is all the rage these days. People have to run around the room pretending to be electrons, rather than learning about electrical current in the abstract. It’s supposed to make learning more “approachable” and easier. A creditable aim, but I am afraid that I have always despised that kind of teaching. It treats people like idiots, incapable of understanding abstract thought. And personally, I learn far more by learning the abstract concept. (Well, I’m an academic lawyer, of course I love abstract concepts.)

It seems that perhaps I am not alone in learning more readily by being taught an abstract concept.

A recent study suggests concrete examples may actually impede students from learning an abstract mathematical concept. The New York Times article explains:

In the experiment, the college students learned a simple but unfamiliar mathematical system, essentially a set of rules. Some learned the system through purely abstract symbols, and others learned it through concrete examples like combining liquids in measuring cups and tennis balls in a container.

Then the students were tested on a different situation — what they were told was a children’s game — that used the same math. “We told students you can use the knowledge you just acquired to figure out these rules of the game,” Dr. Kaminski said.

The students who learned the math abstractly did well with figuring out the rules of the game. Those who had learned through examples using measuring cups or tennis balls performed little better than might be expected if they were simply guessing. Students who were presented the abstract symbols after the concrete examples did better than those who learned only through cups or balls, but not as well as those who learned only the abstract symbols.

The problem with the real-world examples, Dr. Kaminski said, was that they obscured the underlying math, and students were not able to transfer their knowledge to new problems.

“They tend to remember the superficial, the two trains passing in the night,” Dr. Kaminski said. “It’s really a problem of our attention getting pulled to superficial information.”

The researchers said they had experimental evidence showing a similar effect with 11-year-old children. The findings run counter to what Dr. Kaminski said was a “pervasive assumption” among math educators that concrete examples help more children better understand math.

But if the Ohio State findings also apply to more basic math lessons, then teaching fractions with slices of pizza or statistics by pulling marbles out of a bag might prove counterproductive. “There are reasons to think it could affect everyone, including young learners,” Dr. Kaminski said.

As a teacher, I’ve always been a big fan of keeping it simple, and getting across the basic concepts. Seems like maybe I am on the right track. So I won’t be getting my class to pretend to be Torrens land titles or mere equities any time in the future.

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Filed under academia, children, education, psychology

Student evaluations

I think I’ve mentioned the phenomenon of student evaluations before on this blog. Sometimes, as I’ve explained in the earlier post, I’ve received some very amusing ones. Most have been pretty positive although I have received some critical evaluations. Never anything really soul destroying…yet. Other times, the positive ones balance the negative ones exactly (eg, I get 5 saying “Where were the Powerpoint slides?” and 5 saying “Thank God there were no Powerpoint slides!”) I tend to mentally file those responses under “well, you can’t please ’em all”.

Lately I’ve come across a couple of interesting legal issues regarding student evaluations. Of course, both cases come from the US, the fount of much interesting litigation.

First, there’s the case of a student who, when asked to complete a student evaluation form, wrote offensive comments about a professor’s sexuality and expressed the desire that the professor die of AIDs. Read more about it here at Concurring Opinons and here at Volokh Conspiracy.

The evaluation was said to be confidential. However, the professor in question was very upset by the comments, and went through exam papers to identify the handwriting of the person who had made the comments. The particular student was identified, and officially reprimanded. The student has been asked to write a 1,200-word essay on how his remarks affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, to write a letter of apology to the professor (including constructive criticisms of his teaching style), and to discuss with the university training or other programs deemed appropriate.

Hmm. I have to say that I found the student’s comments offensive, and for this reason I decided not to reproduce them on my page. I’m sure that if someone directed racist, sexist or other abuse at me, I would be very, very upset. Particularly if it was something about which I was already sensitive or about which I had already had to face abuse from others previously. I also think the punishment was appropriate, although I do wonder whether it will really change the student’s underlying prejudices.

On the other hand, if it were me, I don’t know that I’d go through all the exam papers and work out who said it. To my mind, the surveys are confidential, and even when people say stupid and offensive things, that is a promise that needs to be kept, except in extreme cases where, for example, a death threat is made. The confidentiality allows students freedom of speech to say whatever they want, even if it is ridiculous or highly critical.

The student did say that he hoped the professor in question would die, but to my mind, it was not a death threat – it was more of a unpleasant and juvenile sneer of the kind that 13 year olds make. The statement made by the student indicates (a) that he is extremely immature and (b) that his opinion is not worth much anyway. I’d probably decide to brush it off as an opinion not even worth worrying about, and hope that as he progressed through university he came to a more open-minded point of view. I might also suspect that he had sexuality issues of his own (as is often the case with young homophobic males)…

However, I’d welcome comments from anyone who feels differently. I suspect some readers who are members of the gay and lesbian community might feel very strongly about this one.

The second case concerns a professor who altered student evaluations to make them more favourable towards him. The professor happened to teach law, and the Supreme Court of Iowa has suspended him from legal practice, with the possibility of reinstatement on conditions. (Hat tip to Stephen Warne for alerting me to this one).

The misconduct occurred as follows. The professor remained in the room when the student surveys were taken, and he and his research assistant also completed surveys which were handed in (favourable, I’m sure). It seems that they amended some of the results.

The professor also gave a speech to the students stressing the importance of good reviews, and said that his problems with the law school had arisen because others were jealous of him. I must say that I have never had the hide to give a speech to students about how important student evaluations are to academic careers. I’d rather people judge me honestly, without having to beg them to be kind.

The professor was suffering from bipolar disorder, and at the time of the offences, he had not taken his medication, which makes his conduct rather more explicable. Ironically, his speciality was mental health law. Still, despite the bipolar disorder, he must have known that what he was doing was wrong.

The consequences have been quite devastating for his career, I am sure – what a silly fellow! – he would have been better to leave the questionnaires untouched and leave his career in one piece.

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Filed under academia, cheating, education, freedom of speech, law, legal education, powerpoint, sexuality, society, tolerance, universities, USA

Surveys and silliness

It has been a hectic few weeks. Teaching has ended for the year. As always, I got a corker of a comment in the student feedback surveys. One student said that I should “dress up as a gangsta” and bring my daughter to class as an example of “ginger power”. That made me laugh. I don’t even know exactly what dressing like a gangsta is, but I suspect it’s not something I’d normally do. My husband is wondering if I did anything to provoke the gangsta comment (wore bling, carried a glock, talked about my beee-artches or anything like that?). No, I did not. I suspect it was totally random.

Last semester, one of the comments suggested that I should run for Prime Minister because I would be more awesome than John Howard. I told the class that I am obviously more awesome than John Howard, but I won’t be becoming a politician any time soon. I’m far too tactless for the job. Not that I’d go as far as Tony Abbott – rudeness is not my style – but if someone asked me what I thought on a matter, I’d probably blurt out what I really thought, not the party policy, and then I’d get in trouble.

There is also a “multiple choice” part of the questionnaire that students must fill out. It contains a really silly question which says something like “I felt part of a group of students and staff who were committed to learning”. What does that mean exactly? There’s too many variables. I suspect that the real question is whether the teacher actually cares about his or her subject and the students. One always enjoys a subject more if the teacher is enthusiastic. I like the written comments on the questionnaires the best. They are the bits I take to heart, both positive and negative.

Does anyone else have trouble filling out multiple choice forms? I always find that there’s not a box for the option I want. Perhaps I am just strange. But I was filling out a government form the other day, and got very frustrated. Grr. And every now and again I do those marketing multiple choice surveys, and they ask dumb questions like does an ad for a particular brand of car or beer make me feel confident or sexy. Um, no. Ads generally make me yawn. Luckily I don’t need no car or beer to make me feel good, wiggity whack.

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Filed under crazy stuff, education, Personal

Baby Einstein not so smart

I wrote a post a while back on feeling guilty where I spoke about the lack of exposure my child has had to Baby Einstein and educational DVDs. A new study has posited that showing educational DVDs to children has little or no educational benefit, and may actually harm them. So I’ll scrub away that particular guilt-creator.

While I don’t show educational DVDs to my daughter, I’m not going to be one of those mothers who bans her child from television. My daughter now loves Playschool, and when the opening music comes on, she shouts “Blayscoo!” I have to say (don’t tell anyone) that I quite enjoy it too. Whereas the Wiggles make me want to eat my own leg off. And Dorothy the Dinosaur’s show is atrocious. The fairies are the worst actors I’ve ever seen. Not that my daughter cares – she shouts “Dino!” and claps. So I put up with it, just for her.

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Filed under children's television, education, motherhood, parenthood, television

Carrots that eat milk

When my sister and I were little, we came up with the sentence which is the title of this post (during a trip to Jenolan Caves). We found it hilarious because it made no sense. Carrots are incapable of eating, and even if they were capable, they couldn’t “eat” milk anyway. Yeah, we were strange little kids.

Dave from Balneus has drawn my attention to this interesting linguistic analysis of the US Supreme Court’s recent decision in Morse v Frederick, also known as the “Bong HiTS 4 Jesus” case. The events took place on 24 January 2002 when the Olympic Torch Relay passed through Juneau in Alaska, en route to Salt Lake City in Utah for the Winter Olympic Games. The Torch Relay passed by Juneau-Douglas High School, and the principal, Deborah Morse, decided to let students watch it. As the torchbearers and camera crew passed by the high school, Frederick and his friends unfurled a 14-foot banner which read “Bong HiTS 4 Jesus”. Morse immediately crossed the street and asked the students to take the banner down. Everyone but Frederick complied. Morse then confiscated the banner and suspended Frederick for 10 days. This was upheld by the school administration. Frederick then brought a legal action alleging that his First Amendment right to freedom of speech had been violated. It went all the way to the Supreme Court.

A majority of the Supreme Court upheld the school’s actions, saying the school was within its rights to cause Frederick to take the banner down. Roberts CJ said:

At least two interpretations of the words on the banner demonstrate that the sign advocated the use of illegal drugs. First, the phrase could be interpreted as an imperative: “”[Take] bong hits –” . . .”—a message equivalent, as Morse explained in her declaration, to “smoke marijuana” or “use an illegal drug.” Alternatively, the phrase could be viewed as celebrating drug use — “—“bong hits [are a good thing],” or “[we take] bong hits” — ”—and we discern no meaningful distinction between celebrating illegal drug use in the midst of fellow students and outright advocacy or promotion.

Accordingly, the school had a right to prohibit banners such as that displayed by Frederick.

The minority found that the school did not have a right to prohibit the banner because it did not advocate drug use. In fact, the minority was of the opinion that the banner said very little of sense whatsoever:

To the extent the Court independently finds that BONG HiTS 4 JESUS” objectively amounts to the advocacy of illegal drug use—in other words, that it can most reasonably be interpreted as such—that conclusion practically refutes itself. This is a nonsense message, not advocacy. The Court’s feeble effort to divine its hidden meaning is strong evidence of that. Ante at 7 (positing that the banner might mean, alternatively, “‘[Take] bong hits,’ ‘bong hits [are a good thing]”,” or “”‘[we take] bong hits’”). Frederick’’s credible and uncontradicted explanation for the message— — he just wanted to get on television— — is also relevant because a speaker who does not intend to persuade his audience can hardly be said to be advocating anything. But most importantly, it takes real imagination to read a “cryptic” message…with a slanting drug reference as an incitement to drug use. Admittedly, some high school students (including those who use drugs) are dumb. Most students, however, do not shed their brains at the schoolhouse gate, and most students know dumb advocacy when they see it. The notion that the message on this banner would actually persuade either the average student or even the dumbest one to change his or her behavior is most implausible. That the Court believes such a silly message can be proscribed as advocacy underscores the novelty of its position, and suggests that the principle it articulates has no stopping point. Even if advocacy could somehow be wedged into Frederick’’s obtuse reference to marijuana, that advocacy was at best subtle and ambiguous. … If this were a close —case, the tie would have to go to Frederick’’s speech, not to the principal’’s strained reading of his quixotic message.

The linguistic analysis of the judgment finds the minority opinion more convincing. Bill Poser says:

That an ill-formed or incomplete utterance might have no semantic interpretation is of course completely uncontroversial. Thus, from a linguistic point of view, it is perfectly possible that the words on the banner might have meant nothing at all. Frederick’s explanation of his motivation for displaying the banner provides a plausible account of his use of words that did not mean anything.

It is a silly message. It is deliberately courting controversy by mingling marijuana use with the name Jesus. Nevertheless, if I were a Christian, I suspect I would find it offensive. As a non-Christian, I simply find it ridiculous and childish. But as far as I can see, “Bong HiTS 4 Jesus” has no clear meaning, and makes no more sense than my sister’s and my phrase “carrots that eat milk”.

I can’t help noticing the irony that Frederick’s message (whatever it means) has gotten far more exposure than it otherwise might have done if the school had just told him off and dismissed it as a attention-seeking prank. It reminds me a little of the tantrums thrown my toddler. The maternal health nurse recommends that I ignore the tantrums, because the object is to get attention, and any attention, even bad attention is better than none. Given that the object of the prank was to seek attention and controversy, Fredericks would have been better off rewarded with no attention whatsoever.

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Filed under blasphemy, christianity, courts, drugs, education, freedom of speech, human rights, law, religion, USA

Quick post on hijabs

I read today that legislation banning teachers from wearing a hijab in class passed by the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia has been upheld as legal. Obviously I can’t comment on the nature of the decision (I don’t know much about German law). But I do think that it represents a disturbing trend of intolerance.

What of Catholic or Anglican nuns, who may wear a wimple? Would they also be banned from teaching classes? I should hope so, for reasons of moral consistency. You can’t have one rule for one religion and another rule for another. What about a Jewish teacher who wore a yarmulke (Jewish skull cap)? What about a Sikh teacher with a turban? Where do you draw the line?

My suggestion is that the line needs to be drawn only where religious dress prevents a teacher from communicating effectively with students. As long as a teacher’s face is fully visible and she can do all the practical demonstrations which she needs to do, there should be no reason for her to be banned from teaching. As I have written previously in this blog, I do not think that niqabs (covering leaving only the eyes showing) or burqas (covering with gauze over the eyes) are appropriate wear for teachers, because it inhibits face to face communication and inhibits physical movement. And communication is an essential part of teaching. But as long as the face is visible, what’s the problem?

Have a look at RG’s post about recent allegations of school photos being doctored to remove evidence of a hijab from a student’s head (did they have to imagine what her hair looked like?…the mind boggles). Thoroughly recommended.

(Via Jurist)

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Filed under education, islam, jobs, law, religion, society, tolerance

School pays for bullying

I’ve written very recently on the phenomenon of people suing schools. In a decision handed down yesterday, Cox v State of New South Wales [2007] NSWSC 471, a bullied teenager from NSW has been awarded substantial damages and an income for life as a result of bullying sustained while he was at school (primary school and high school). He could not continue at school past Year 7. He still suffers from severe psychiatric problems, including depression and anxiety. The result of Mr Cox’s case is very sad.

Nevertheless, as I have discussed in my previous post on the topic, I am ambivalent about these cases. I was bullied at primary school and high school, partially because I suffered from a disability at that time. There was one particular girl who was a terrible bully, and in retrospect, I wouldn’t be surprised if she grew up to be a psychopath. Apparently I was a friendly, open child before I went to primary school, but I became very anxious and shy for many years, until my late teens. From that point of view, I feel great sympathy towards Mr Cox. It sounds like the response of the school and the Department was wholly inadequate.

But, being a cynic, I wonder how much anti-bullying policies and action by the school could have achieved. My own experience at high school was that when these issues were raised in the classroom, all the bullies earnestly said that bullying was a terrible thing, and should be dealt with harshly. Did they have any idea that they were bullies themselves? I still wonder. Really the only thing you can do is to take the bully out of the particular class. Even if teachers are vigilant, they cannot always stop bullying in a class.

Another problem with anti-bullying programs is bullies may be diagnosed as suffering from self-esteem problems. This may be so – I am no expert on the psychology of bullying – but a result of this analysis can be that a bully is rewarded with attention for his actions.

Let’s consider a case study. A teacher of my acquaintance told me of a terrible bully in his class. The teacher taught at an ethnically diverse school. This boy was racist and sexist. If he had been an adult, his conduct would have been racially and sexually abusive. The teacher understood that the boy had a difficult family background.

The teacher did his best to try to control this boy, but it was very easy for the boy to do things before the teacher arrived at class, when the teacher had his back turned and was writing on the board or when the teacher was trying to help another student. The teacher reported the boy to the principal. The boy was returned to the class with a “stress balloon”. He was supposed to blow up the balloon every time he felt “stressed”. Instead, he proceeded to disrupt the class by using the “stress balloon” to make fart noises. And he continued to bully students. The teacher could not give his full attention to teaching the class or helping other students.

What can teachers do in these circumstances? And what can the school do? Obviously, the stress balloon is a ridiculous solution. The school could try to tell the child that his conduct is inappropriate, but obviously, a child such as this will not care. The school could also try speaking to the child’s parents. But in the above circumstances, the parents had problems of their own with the boy’s behaviour, and indicated that they could not control him either.

A school can’t easily expel a student or take a student out of a class. Education is a right which we offer to all children, and it’s difficult to make a judgment as to when someone should be denied that opportunity.

However, the case study above indicates that there needs to be some kind of measures which balance the rights of the majority not to be bullied and to receive a proper education against the rights of the bully to be educated. As the situation stood, the class was short-changed because the teacher had to spend a lot of effort controlling the bully which could have been better spent on teaching, and the bully still managed to keep bullying other students. Should there be a school to which bullies are sent? If so, what if the bullies are then hardened and turned into worse bullies? What if the bullies are bullied by other bigger bullies and psychologically injured thereby? And then sue?

I can’t bear the thought of my child coming across bullies at school. It really worries me. Hopefully, I can try to provide her with the love, support and coping strategies she needs to overcome bullies. I am glad that I learned how to deal with bullying better, and how to stand up for myself.  I am also glad that my parents were loving and supportive.

Another the sad fact of life, too, is that once we emerge from school, we still come across bullies all the time. In fact, bullies and psychopaths can do quite well for themselves in the big, bad world. It has been reported in The Times that an American study found that many stockbrokers, as well as many top lawyers and CEOs, had qualities which made them “functioning psychopaths”. They did not have the same emotional engagement with life as other people. {Aside: I knew it! I knew it!}

So whether we learn how to deal with these people at school, or afterwards, it’s inevitable that we will come across them at some stage. The important thing is to ensure that intelligent and promising people are not irredeemably scarred by encounters with bullies. And to stress that it is possible to get through school and become a successful functioning adult even if you were bullied at school.

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Filed under depression, education, law, parenthood, society, tolerance, tort law