Is Twitter Making Kids Smarter?

In the Globe and Mail, Clive Thomas argues that all the time kids spend on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs may be making them better writers and thinkers.  Thomas cites the work of Andrea Lunsford, an English professor at Stanford, who recently compared freshman composition papers from 1917, 1930, 1986, and 2006 and found that, while the average rate of errors hasn't changed much since 1917, students today write longer, more intellectually complex papers:

In 1917, a freshman paper was on average only 162 words long and the majority were simple “personal narratives.” By 1986, the length of papers more than doubled, averaging 422 words. By 2006, they were more than six times longer, clocking in at 1,038 words – and they were substantially more complex, with the majority consisting of a “researched argument or report,” with the student taking a point of view and marshalling evidence to support it.

“Student writers today are tackling the kinds of issues that require inquiry and investigation as well as reflection,” Prof. Lunsford concluded.

Ending the Math Wars in a Treaty of QAMA

As a country, we are often at war. If it's not against Germany, England, terrorism, or Grenada, it's the war on poverty (that's gone so well), the war on cancer (ditto), and, of particular interest to me, the Math Wars, which have been raging for decades. On one side, the traditionalists insist on drilling and back to basics, "on behalf of sanity and quality in math education." On the other side, the reformers insist on conceptual understanding using computers and calculators, to "promot[e] the rational reform of mathematics education."

Both are half-right and half-crazy. As the reformers say, students need to understand what the mathematics means. Students whose word problem for "6 x 3 = 18" is of the form "There were 6 ducks, and 3 more showed up, so 6 times 3 is 18," understand little. (See "Children Learning Multiplication, Part 1," in the articles by Professor Thomas C. O'Brien.) As the traditionalists say, using computers for everything leads to needing a calculator to compute what 6.5 x 10 is.

However, there's a tool to combine the merits of both sides: the Quick, Approximate, Mental Arithmetic (QAMA) calculator.

Faster Than Light: A Guest Post

I recently had occasion to e-chat with Rocky Kolb, a well-regarded astronomer and astrophysicist at the University of Chicago. Talk turned, of course, to the recent likely discovery of the Higgs boson -- but, as Kolb talk about that, he raised an even broader and more interesting point about scientific discovery.

He was good enough to write up his thoughts in a guest blog post that I am pleased to present below:

 

Faster Than Light
By Rocky Kolb

After the news coverage of the past week, everyone now understands what a Higgs particle is, and why physicists were so excited about the July 4th announcement of its probable discovery at CERN, a huge European physics accelerator laboratory.  (The disclaimer “probable” is because it could turn out that the new particle seen at CERN is not the Higgs after all, but an imposter particle with properties like the Higgs.)

For a few days it was common to see, hear, or read my colleagues struggling to explain why the discovery of a Higgs particle is a triumph for science.  But after a week of physics in the news, the media has moved on to cover the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes divorce and shark sightings near beaches.  Perhaps all the public will be left with is a memory that there was a triumph for science.  Science works: theories are tested and confirmed by experiment.

I think that the CERN Higgs discovery was, indeed, a triumph for science.  However, the Higgs was not the only dramatic announcement at CERN in the past year.  But the other dramatic result is something many physicists would rather forget.

Seal Training or Learning?

Yesterday I got a short and sweet insight into learning, courtesy of the New England Aquarium, where I took our daughters for our weekly visit. One of our favorite exhibits is the training session for the sea lions and fur seals. In the audience this time were about 100 school children with parents and teachers. To introduce the session, the lead trainer conducted the following discussion:

How many of you do chores? (Many hands go up.)

How many of you get an allowance for doing chores? (Most hands remain in the air.)

How many of do homework?

  • How many you have to finish your homework before you can go outside to play? (Lots of hands still in the air.)

    I see lots of hands! It makes homework not so bad because you get a reward at the end.

  • The Way We Teach Math, Sciences, and Languages Is Wrong

    A few years after I learned German, I got the chance to learn French. That experience gave me lots of ideas for why our teaching of many subjects, especially science and mathematics, is so unsuccessful---and for how we can improve our learning.

    I studied French in school for five years. However, when I went to France after college, I could barely buy a train ticket. The impetus to try again came a few years later, in the summer of 1993. Our whole family was going to spend two months in Lyon while my father took a sabbatical. The rest of us enrolled in a four-week language course at the Alliance Française.

    While still in America, to get more benefit from the language course, I started relearning French. On the recommendation of a friend who is a linguist and mathematician, I got the self-study French course made by Assimil entitled Le Nouveau Français sans Peine (New French With Ease). (Many other self-study courses should also work well. I have not tried them, so I do not have the knowledge to draw out lessons for learning other subjects, which is my main interest here. But to learn about language programs, I recommend the excellent "How to learn any language" site.)

    I did one French lesson daily starting from Lesson 1. I read a short, idiomatic dialogue out loud using the pronunciation key, then listened to it on the tape, repeating it sentence by sentence. The lesson finished with 2 minutes of fill-in-the-word exercises using the vocabulary from the dialogue. Each lesson took about 30 minutes. After three months of this preparation, when I landed in France I could converse with random French people on the train.

    How to Learn (Not Just) a Language Quickly

    I was never good at languages. Although my first language was Punjabi, I grew up as a monolingual English speaker. In grade school, I took French for many years with grades of mostly Bs and a few Cs. However, I managed to learn fairly fluent German in just a few months. As I look back on it, I realize that I applied methods that help in learning any subject, which is my reason for telling you what I did.

    It was 20 years ago in the eight-week language course at the Goethe Institute in Prien am Chiemsee, a beautiful resort town in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps (sadly, that school has since closed its doors). Upon arrival, we took placement tests to determine a suitable class. The instructors offered me the choice of starting in the highest of the three beginning levels or in the lowest of the three intermediate levels. (In college I had studied a year of German, which I estimate as comparable to four weeks of immersion in language school.)

    I chose the intermediate class. For the first five weeks, I understood almost nothing that the teacher or the other students said. However, in the sixth week of the course, something amazing happened. Each day in that week I understood more.