Eddukashun: Wot problem?

[Note: This was written way back in 2014, when the idea of a President Trump was unheard of.]

Getting the goods is hard. We live in an age of a superabundance of data but almost no information. Most folk around the world think that the Russian involvement in the independence of the Crimea was – at the least – unsporting; not so according to Russia’s media, which means most Russians are content with the story that Russia has recently fought and won World War Three, liberating the oppressed peoples of the Crimea from the brutal oppression of the Ukrainian fascist stooges and their criminal bosses in Europe and the US. Meanwhile in the land of the free, an average evening program of world news might contain up to three items on events outside the USA, sometimes none.

Getting the goods is hard, so I like to cast my net broad, across different media, different countries, and different ages. One day, while working at Walmart, three of my sources came up with three stories relating to education.


Sergio Juárez Correa & Paloma Noyola Bueno [Wired]

Sergio Juárez Correa & Paloma Noyola Bueno [Wired]

The first source is the magazine Wired. Wired has had some the best journalism of the last 10 years, although it scaled down its efforts since the heady days of the Wired style manual. The piece is entitled “How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses”. The epicenter of the story is Matamoros, which is on the wrong side of the US-Mexican border. Life there is grim – you can imagine – but there are kids there and some go to José Urbina López Primary School, AKA un lugar de castigo (“a place of punishment”). If you think that would be a stupid place to start looking for a revolution in math education, then you would be dead wrong.

The dismal prospects for the inmates of the lugar de castigo were the starting point for Sergio Juárez Correa, a teacher at José Urbina López. He started to look for something more effective than the government’s curriculum, and in his searches, he discovered the work of Sugata Mitra, a pioneering educationalist, who had the daft idea that kids want to learn, and could teach themselves.

One day Juárez Correa went to his whiteboard and wrote “1 = 1.00.” Normally, at this point, he would start explaining the concept of fractions and decimals. Instead he just wrote “½ = ?” and “¼ = ?” “Think about that for a second,” he said, and walked out of the room.” He came back with 10 pesos (75 cents) and watched as one of the kids, Alma Delia Juárez Flores, explained to her class mates the concept of decimal fractions.

That was interesting. So, he persisted in his ridiculous pedagogy and tried an old teacher’s trick: he told the kids to add up the numbers from 1 to 100. Normal people will start to add 1 to 2 to 3 . . . but there is a short cut, if you can stand back and see the wood for the trees. 0 + 100 is 100, and so is 1 + 99, and so is 2 + 98, so the answer is 50 x 100 plus the 50 in the middle making a total of 5050. The kids were quiet for a moment until Paloma Noyola Bueno raised her hand and said, “The answer is 5,050. There are 50 pairs of 101.” Juárez had his aha moment.

History of math is not something that folks are big on, so may I explain why Juárez was so moved. This sum was set for another child in another country, over two hundred years ago; the child was Carl Friedrich Gauss. When he told the schoolmaster the answer, just like Paloma, Gauss’s teacher, rather than beat him for being a smart alec, told the Duke of Brunswick. The Duke duly sent Gauss to the best school around called Collegium Carolinum (now Braunschweig University of Technology) which was very smart of him. Gauss went to become Princeps mathematicorum (“the Prince of Mathematicians”). In baseball terms Gauss was Babe Ruth, and, like the Babe, he was a game changer. The next generation of mathematicians went on to explore radical new ideas about math. It is this math which underpins the physics and hence the technology of the twentieth century. It is no accident that one of the two of the schools of thought about Quantum Mechanics is the Göttingen school, named after Gauss’s home town. So, if it is possible to build a Warp Drive, it will be someone like Paloma who will be its creator.

Gauss on the 10 Mark Bank

Gauss on the 10 Mark Bank

Back in Matamoros in June 2012 a coordinator from the Ministry of Education arrived to give the kids one of those standardized tests so beloved by such people. It came and it went, except that this time Juárez Correa noticed the kids were distinctly unfazed, taking the test in their stride as just another trivial chore.

The real news had to wait until Sept 2012 when Ricardo Zavala Hernandez, assistant principal at José Urbina López, logged on the ENLACE, Mexico’s national achievement exam web site, to check the results of the June 2012 tests. On the whole things were predictably a little bit better than last year, except for Juárez Correa’s class. In the Spanish tests, all the students were well above average and Zavala Hernandez had the top mark in the state AND the country. Palomar came TOP in math in the country with ten of her class mates above the 99.99th percentile.

Juárez Correa obviously had something but nothing that Francisco Sánchez Salazar, the chief of the Regional Center of Educational Development in Matamoros, was interested in. He said, “The teaching method makes little difference,” . . . “Intelligence comes from necessity,” he says. “They succeed without having resources.” Nice job.

The US clones of Jefe Salazar at present are pushing something called Common Core. This Youtube video shows one student’s withering option of it.

From Our Own Correspondent

From Our Own Correspondent

The next source is I had “From Our Own Correspondent” a broadcast and podcast from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The BBC, or Auntie has she is affectionately known as, was created in a time of Empire, and still tries to apply British notions of truthfulness and fairness to its news reporting. Many people including the Dali Lama think it an excellent source of impartial, well presented information. The “From Our Own Correspondent” reports are topical, well sourced and have humanity. This story is from Sarah Toms in Singapore entitled “Mrs Wong and Mrs Lim Go Shopping”. Sarah’s daughter is at school there and is deluged with homework. She has been doing algebra since age eight. Not only does this challenge the kids, it challenges their parents. So much so that in Singapore there are Saturday morning classes for parents, to teach them the material in their children’s homework. Sarah went to one of these classes along with sixty or so concerned parents to do math, along the lines of “Mrs Lin bought twelve pears and ten apples . . . “

What are the chances, do you think, of seeing a class for parents in math in the UK or USA any time soon?

New York, New York

The last story that day was about the latest results from New York, New York. I can’t find the exact story but it was along the lines that only a fraction of high school students could get into community college. It doesn’t matter. There is no lack of dismal statistics about New York schools and American public schools in general. There is the dutiful wringing of hands and promises of a better tomorrow, again.


To the mix, I should add that a friend who had become a Supervisor (Acting) at the store had been asked by another supervisor, one of the trusties, how do you spell “medicine”?

What does all this mean, if anything?

I am not sure which I reckon is a good start. Part of the problem is that there are too many people with simplistic solutions or poorly thought through opinions, e.g. I know I went to school you know. I think that what is missing are good questions and honesty.

Some questions we can ask and answer quite easily, e.g.

Boy Square Root

“Boy Square Root”

Q) Are there many people like Paloma in the world today?

A) A lot. Chelsea Mae made a video about a urchin call Gerald AKA “Boy Square Root” which was published by the Huffington Post.

It would be nice if these kids had their Duke of Brunswick to scoop them up and send them on to college and a glittering future.

Q) A more difficult question is why bother?

A) Governments and educationists, those in the education reform industry, would claim that the answer is obvious, and start droning on about technology. I think that at the least they are being disingenuous, in the wonderful phrase of a British Civil Servant, “economical with the truth”.

My second piece of evidence for such a point of view also comes from another Wired article, this one entitled ‘If Politicians Had to Debug Laws Like Software, They’d Fix the Bugs’ which begins:

In the spring, members of Congress set off to fly home for a holiday—and ran into mammoth lines at the airports. Why were things so bad? Because of airport furloughs caused by the “sequester.” The sequester, you may recall, is the ridiculous measure Congress passed when members couldn’t agree on a budget, and it mandates across-the-board cuts.

Critics warned that the sequester would cause hardship throughout the country, but congress-folk didn’t care — until they had to share in the pain.When they discovered that the sequester was eating into their vacation time, they rushed back to the Capitol and passed a law restoring funding to airports, working so fast that part of the bill was handwritten.

Congress, it turns out, isn’t paralyzed. It’s just not motivated correctly. In this spirit, there’s one simple way to get our do-nothing legislators off the dime: Have them eat their own dog food. Then maybe one day Captain Kirk will command his USS Enterprise “to boldly go where no one has been before”.

Seez You by Nate Beeler

Seez You by Nate Beeler @ http://www.cagle.com/author/nate-beeler/



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