My first reaction to the good news that girls are now doing as well as boys in mathematics, at least through high school, was to laugh at the headline, which was "Numbers don't lie: Girls equal to boys in math."  Anyone who knows anything at all about numbers knows that they are frequently used to express untruths.  Nonetheless, it's still good to hear that the distressing gap between male and female performance that once appeared between elementary school and high school has disappeared.

And yet, I wonder.  I don't give any more credence to the idea that boys might be inherently better in math than girls, any more than I do to the idea that girls are naturally superior in reading.  (I do leave room for the idea that certain ways of thinking, some approaches to problems, and even some narrow fields of mathematics, might show sex-specific correlations, because, after all, men and women are inherently, biologically different.  I'm quite certain, however, that differences among individuals are great enough to make sex-related differences of little import.)  What makes me less than elated about this new study is a nagging suspicion of anything that sees parity as the goal.  From the school principal who told me that the ultimate purpose of kindergarten was to get all students on the same level, to the school board members who were much less concerned with student achievement than with making sure no school in the district looked any better or worse than another, I've found that a victory in mere equality often masks a decline in real accomplisment.  Both kindergarten and school district "parity" are often achieved as much by holding some students back as by bringing others forward.  I'm certainly glad girls are doing "as well" as boys in mathematics—but much more interested in how all our students are doing, not only in comparison with each other, with students of the past, and with students of other countries, but most importantly in consideration of actual achievement.  "As good as" is a slippery measurement, and "better than" is little better.  In the company of serial rapists, a "mere" adulterer might feel pretty good about himself.

(It is also worth mentioning that the reason given for poor female performance in the past, that people expected girls to be stupid when it came to math, was certainly not universal, even "50 years ago."  My parents never expected that I would not do as well as my brothers, nor did any of my teachers offer me such a flimsy excuse as gender for poor performance!)
Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, July 25, 2008 at 6:54 am | Edit
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O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek...to be understood, as to understand.—St. Francis

I can't resist taking a moment to share another excellent post from Random Observations, which gently reminds me that I need to spend more time trying to understand the point of view of those with whom I disagree, especially if I disagree strongly and emotionally.

If you can't even correctly repeat the arguments of your opponents, how in the world do you imagine you've refuted them?
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, July 22, 2008 at 6:52 am | Edit
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For a monolingual person, I have an inordinate love of languages.  Not only is multi-lingualism increasingly important in today's world, but it does wonderful things for the brain—from increased brain growth in babies to decreased dementia in the elderly.  I wish the great resources available for teaching young children another language had been around when our kids were little, and I wish I had more aggressively pursued what there was.  Be that as it may, I am only a language dilettante, enjoying learning a few phrases of Japanese before our trip there, brushing up on my minimal high school French, and listening to the language CDs from the Hippo Family Clubs.  I wish I were multi-lingual, but face the reality that at my age it just isn't going to happen.

Nonetheless, I should be able to learn, if I put the time and effort into it, enough of a language to get along reasonably well with basic, necessary communication.  Which brings me to the question of why I find myself attracted to almost any language other than the two that would be of the most immediate practical use to learn: Spanish and German. (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, July 3, 2008 at 7:01 am | Edit
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I don't recall the era of the 1960s with fondness; it wasn't all bad, but it was a messy, unkind time that accelerated our culture's decline in the areas of civility and decent behavior.  However, there must be more of the 60s in my make-up than I thought:  I'm finding good reasons to distrust The Man.  :)

Just as the National Education Association adamantly opposes home education, the American Medical Association, unnerved, perhaps, by Ricki Lake's popular home birth movie, The Business of Being Born, has taken direct aim at home birth.*  Reaction against yet one more threat to personal freedom has come from across the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right.  Congratulations to the AMA for provoking agreement between pro-choice and pro-life groups.  Wink (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 28, 2008 at 4:53 pm | Edit
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Equality means everyone gets to run the race. It does not mean everyone comes in first.

John C. Wright and I may not agree on Prince Caspian, but we saw the same message in The Incredibles: the loss of excellence, enthusiasm, and initiative that results when we foolishly favor equality of outcome over equality of opportunity.

The inspiration for Wright's post was a soccer trophy won by his five-year-old son.  Well, "won" is stretching quite a bit, and that's Wright's point.  Everyone on the team received the same trophy, just for showing up.  Or even not showing up; the coach also wanted to give a trophy to Wright's other son, who had quit the team mid-season! (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, June 11, 2008 at 11:12 am | Edit
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So. Studies have shown that length of life can be extended by eating a very low calorie diet, twenty to thirty percent less than a "standard diet." Whatever the standard diet is, you can bet it's significantly less than the average American diet, so we're talking severe calorie reduction here.

Thanks to the University of Wisconsin-Madison (my nephew's current college of choice), the National Institutes of Health, and DSM Nutritional Products of [ahem] Basel, Switzerland, there is a better way. Drinking red wine apparently has similar effects and works by nearly the same mechanism. (If you're ambitious you can read the full report.)

Let's see. To drink, or not to eat...is that a question? I don't care much for wine and even then I prefer whites to reds, but I could manage this.

The article doesn't say what happens when you combine the starvation diet with drinking red wine, though the picture it evokes in my mind is not exactly one of robust health....
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 10, 2008 at 8:33 am | Edit
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With all due respect for everyone's personal choices, and with free acknowledgement that in our diversity of educational options lies our strength, here's an excerpt from today's Frazz for a moment of homeschooling joy:

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 7, 2008 at 6:44 am | Edit
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While chatting with the dental hygienist yesterday, I learned about a science project that had been assigned to her fifth-grade son: Each student was assigned a "body system"—perhaps circulatory, digestive, respiratory, etc.; I didn't get the details—and told to make up a game using questions about that system.  At first glance that seems reasonable, perhaps even interesting. Games are not a particularly efficient way to learn facts, but they can be an enjoyable way of masking the repetition that is required to commit them to memory.  Certainly making up the questions is a good exercise.

However, the amount of time and effort required for this project was 'way out of proportion to the science knowledge gained, most being devoted to extraneous matters:  the game must have a well-made game board, with a detailed, typed instruction sheet, and a sturdy, well-decorated box.  Such a project might be a joy for some students but torture for their less-crafty classmates—and to what purpose?  Whatever one might think of the merits of training fifth graders in manual dexterity and design, it seems unfair to base a science grade on such work, and in any case one ought not to pretend that it is science that is being taught.

This assignment is yet one more example of how those who claim they don't have enough time to teach properly waste the students' time with busywork.  Craft projects instead of science, PowerPoint presentations instead of written reports, browsing the Internet for images instead of writing paragraphs, and tweaking fonts and backgrounds instead of improving sentence structure!  It's bad enough when a teacher allows a student to get away with such nonsense; to require it is ludicrous.

My theory is that the teacher in question is using her students as slave labor to create classroom materials for future years, so I encouraged the hygienist to make sure the project comes home after it has been graded. 
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 6, 2008 at 8:28 am | Edit
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Thanks to Tim at Random Observations for alerting me to this interesting commentary on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.  The book and the movie derived from it have formed our national image of the Depression and the Dust Bowl.  The trouble is, that's a false impression.  Like Amadeus and Braveheart, The Grapes of Wrath tells a good story based on historical events, but without letting the truth get in the way of the narrative.

Someone with a solid knowledge of the historical situation might be able to imbibe the story without harm, but the rest of us, unfortunately the majority, are learning history through these media, and learning it wrong.  We're left with a mish-mash of fact and fiction we may never sort out, and upon which we will unconsiously base our philosophical, political, social, and moral decisions.

Whoever said (I've seen various attributions), "Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws," might just as well have been speaking about its popular books, television shows, and movies.  The only antidote besides a healthy (uncynical) skepticism is a solid grounding in history, preferably from several viewpoints.  Mea culpa; my own knowledge of history is abysmal, and I did not do much to help our children achieve more.  But if I were designing a home eduation program now, the tripod on which I would rest the entire academic program, beginning from the earliest stages, would be: language, mathematics/logic, and history.  Those who are strong in these three areas will not easily be duped.
Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, April 28, 2008 at 11:00 am | Edit
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Study Suggests Math Teachers Scrap Balls and Slices is a New York Times article about research at Ohio State University that may have profound implications for the teaching of mathematics to young children.  Unfortunately, just what those implications may be is completely obscure to me, as it is, I daresay, to the researchers.

I've written before (here, and here) about my belief that many children can learn abstract math concepts much earlier than is commonly supposed, and do not need to be limited to practical, real-world mathematics until they reach Piaget's magical age of abstract thinking.  So I suppose I should have been pleased to read about a study that purports to show that children actually learn mathematical concepts better through abstract symbols than they do through practical examples.  Not so; I'm also a fan of practical math, and believe both to be important.  In any case, it's hard to draw any conclusions one way or the other from this research—or at least from the Times report.

In the experiment, students were taught a mathematical concept either through abstract symbols or through concrete examples such as combining liquids in measuring cups.  They were then asked to apply that knowledge to figure out the rules of a game.  Those who had learned the concept abstractly did better at that application than those who had learned through the concrete examples, and also better than those who had been taught first the concrete examples and then the abstract ones.  Supposedly the real-world examples actually obscured the underlying math.

I'm going to break the post here, because some of you will want to look at the puzzle yourselves before reading about my experiences.  I strongly encourage you to read the article, but if you don't do that, at least follow the link and click on the link in the upper left under "Multimedia" that will show you the problems.  (It's a javascript pop-up, and I can't figure out how to insert it here without offending someone's copyright.)  Then click the "more" link after this paragraph to continue reading this post. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 25, 2008 at 11:27 am | Edit
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Okay, so it may not generate any cash income, but my status as a blogger has earned me a free, one-year subscription to the Encyclopedia Britannica online!  Many thanks to Groshlink for the alert.  I'm grateful for the existence of Wikipedia, the hare in the online encyclopedia race, because of its wide-ranging, rapid-response (if not necessarily dependable) fluidity, but the opportunity to be able to access, and link to, a steady, reliable tortoise like the Britannica is not to be missed.

The application site has been swamped, it is claimed, but my blog was approved for the free account in less than 24 hours.  Try it with your blog, before they change their minds!
Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, April 23, 2008 at 12:23 pm | Edit
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Sunday's Philadelphia Inquirer story about Diane Goslin is a good summary of, or introduction to, Pennsylavnia's home birth problems. Such struggles are not limited to Pennsylvania, but are a good example, like the recent California homeschooling crisis, of how rights and practices that we have relied on for years—centuries!—in our country can be stripped away in an instant if not specifically written into our laws. I don't blame midwives, like the one who assisted with the deliveries of Noah and Jonathan, for fearing that legislation will bring more restrictions rather than fewer. That's what homeschoolers feared 30 years ago, when the modern home education movement was going through its own birth pangs; in some ways they were right, but when society's attention makes it no longer possible to stay under the radar, the protection of the law becomes necessary.

The concern of the U.S. Supreme Court for the religious freedom of the Amish (Wisconsin v. Yoder) was a significant force in the eventual acknowledgement of the rights and responsibilities of all families in the matter of their children's education, though as California has proved, we must be ever vigilant. The wisdom of the serpent is a complement, not a contradiction, to the harmlessness of the dove.  May the Amish also succeed in establishing recognition of the parents' rights and responsiblities when it comes to the birthing of those children!
Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, April 22, 2008 at 5:22 am | Edit
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The Story of an Experiment is another interesting story from Perla (see previous post), which she posted to support her contention that children should not be taught arithmetic, except as connected with real life experiences, until they are at least ten years old.  I write about it here, not because I agree with her, since I most emphatically do not, but because the story nonetheless makes some excellent points.

In the early 1930s the superintendent of schools for Manchester, New Hampshire tried an experiment—several experiments, actually.  Essentially, he abandoned math as it was taught in the elementary schools, and concentrated instead on language and logic:  reading, reasoning, and speaking, with arithmetic introduced only as it came up in the course of the rest of the studies.  The results, as he reports them, were spectacular, with the "new curriculum" students far exceeding the abilities of their traditionally-taught age-mates, even in mathematical reasoning, and where they were behind (in basic arithmetic manipulation) they caught up quickly when formal study was introduced in sixth grade. (More)
Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 8:59 pm | Edit
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I can hardly count Perla Adams my friend, since we met online and I only visit her blog occasionally.  It's in my feedreader, but the posts and comments in Spanish get ignored.  I'm not proud of my monolingualism, but must deal with it.  Still, I'm not sure how to speak of her in this introduction.  "Internet acquaintance"?  "Fellow blogger?"  Nothing sounds quite right.  Anyway, this delightful person, of whatever label, recently wrote a post (in English) that provoked me to comment, and when I write that much I usually can’t resist sharing in more than one place, i.e. what I’ve written ends up here.  You can find Perla’s original post on her blog, The Classical Mommy.  (That's actually her main site, with all sorts of interesting things.  The post on math is here.)  My response, with a few modifications, is below. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 11:05 am | Edit
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Isamu Fukui doesn't make lemonade out of life's lemons, he makes the whole lemonade factory.  As a fifteen year old high school student, he vented his frustrations by secretly writing a novel about a dystopia in which the world is run like a school.  Unbeknownst to him, his father found out, and instead of sending his son to a psychiatrist (I'm extrapolating here), sent the manuscript to a publisher.  Three years later, Fukui is still in high school with a critically acclaimed, published novel and a contract for two more.

Write a book for yourself alone, so you can say just what you want, let someone else promote it, and have the publishers come begging you for more.  Works for me!  And a far better use of teen ambition than working for gender-blind college dorm rooms.

Thanks to Jon who directed me to the GeeK Dad article on Fukui's book, Truancy
Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 4, 2008 at 12:16 pm | Edit
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