Monday, December 13, 2010

Dan Willingham's Big Whiff

From the Washington Post:

Willingham: What Causes Performance Decline Across Grades?

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham,
a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

Willingham, who is one of my favorites, had an absolute Whiff. It was like he swung at a wild pitch as it headed into the screen with the following statement:

"A parallel phenomenon is happening in math. In the early grades U.S. kids are not very strong on conceptual understanding, but they are pretty good at learning math facts and algorithms.That’s sufficient to produce good test scores in the early grades. Kids can recognize problem types and know which algorithms to apply.But once you start algebra, the absent conceptual knowledge really starts to hurt you."

I am now wondering if a Randy Johnson fast ball hit Dr. Willingham in the head as he swung at the pitch. It is hard to be further off the mark than his analysis of the Algebra difficulty above.

Note if he was correct then recent high school graduates from Seattle's High Schools would not be placing into their first Community College Math class at Seattle Central C.C. with 50% unable to place into a class above the equivalent of High School Math 1. Note 20% of recent high school graduates get a math placement into the equivalent of middle school math or lower. This is clearly not because these students have arithmetic fluency; again these are recent high school graduates' placements into a first math course.

Is Virginia that much different than Seattle?

"US students in the early grades are certainly not facile with math facts and algorithms and it is precisely their lack of fluency in both that causes them to hit a wall when they start algebra." -- Elizabeth Carson

Willingham's assertion seems to indicate we only need to better teach conceptual understanding in the early grades. This will play right into the hands of the those who promote ideology instead of reality: NCTM and TERC and Everyday Math and Trailblazers et al. For those are the pushers of fantasy who ignore results.

Note: Teachers and coaches of Band, Orchestra, Football, Basketball, Chess, etc. are focused on results and see a necessity for sound instruction and practice.

"An “absolute wake up call” is what Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the latest results of the the PISA test, which measures 10th grader’s achievement in reading, math, and science.

"Willingham needs to wake up - and fast" says Elizabeth Carson of NYC HOLD

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