Sunday 31 July 2016

What we can learn from ICME

ICME is the Olympic games of mathematics education.  Everybody who is anybody in mathematics research is here.  Thus, there are many lessons for NZ.

The mathematics group, in and for work, is comprised of about 20 leading researchers. Following three presentations we face the chairs in and have a group discussion regarding the topics.  So far this has been the most beneficial of all sessions.  The topics are diverse and its enlightening watching and listening to the debate.

One topic addressed was 'what is authenticity in a mathematical context? This centered on what makes for authentic mathematical tasks.  In the NZ adult literacy and numeracy domain authenticity is strongly promoted, but often under the guise  of 'contextualisation'.  In fact, at one time it was promoted as the only way.  In my opinion this was an attempt, rightly or wrongly, by the adult literacy and numeracy educators to position themselves as the experts rather than the specialist literacy and numeracy experts occupying the Universities. Although they did not possess the qualifications, their argument was that context is everything, and unless you had a methodology to understand it, you were not going to be effective.  The adult educators appeared to have a methodology for developing literacy and numeracy in authentic contexts, yet whether or not they did was never investigated.  They claimed to, and they also claimed that 'de-contextualised' tasks were next to useless, because they recreated the school approach which had already failed the adult learners in question. I have some sympathy for this view.   

Yet as numeracy/maths educator I was never comfortable with the fixated view that everything had to be contextualised.  Contextualisation never answered the deeper questions regarding learning nor did it  bare up under any sustained scrutiny. The research on authentic tasks does not draw any real conclusions about the benefits, which is odd, considering it is a central plank in adult L&N. Meanwhile, there is now fifty years of research demonstrating good mathematical practice, and little of this has to do with authenticity.  The fixation on contextualisation may have held back many of the research breakthroughs from permeating the adult numeracy sector. 

Second, how does one define authentic?  Nobody wants to be 'inauthentic' and hence everybody argues for their own corner. Kass Hoogland noted, "authentic for whom?"

The group discussion covered these points and we tentatively concluded that 'authentic' is a somewhat redundant term.  The emphasis ought to be on sense-making instead. Does the mathematics make sense to the learner?  Does it still make sense in the target context?  So we slayed a sacred cow that needed slaying in my opinion. 

The take away.  Use what works.  Just make sure it either supports the skills needed in the context, or directly transfers.      

Friday 22 July 2016


Well, after almost 30 hours of travelling we have arrived in Hamburg.  I've slept and now head out for some exploring.  A couple of initial thoughts.

1. The Germans are a really fun, interesting people.
2. They ride bikes - lots of bikes.
3. The air is different - might sound weird, but every country has a different air.  Don't judge me.
4. Hamburg is beautiful.  It is really lush and green.  Also old. The buildings we are in and the area (according to the locals) was preserved by the British post WWII because of it's beauty.  
5. The entire travelling process is incredibly literacy heavy - from finding checking stations at the airport, to communicating in another language, to ordering food and working out tipping, and to buying hay-fever tablets when all text is in German.    
5. The food is great and inexpensive - have realised that expensive houses and land are not the only thing in a bubble in NZ.  We are being fleeced daily.   
6. Having almost read all the conference papers I realise that doing a PhD in NZ in adult mathematics means you must engage with others in an international arena.  Lots of smart people out there doing excellent interesting work.  Not much going on in NZ.

Monday 18 July 2016

Best books for understanding language development

I love learning about how language works.  In particular, I enjoy the all things related to first language acquisition.  It is, quite simply, a real life miracle.  

There are many many great researchers, writers and books.  Some are entertaining, some are informative, and some a combination of both.  I am more interested in learning useful stuff than being entertained, thus I recommend the following.

Language Development by Robert. E. Owens JR.

I read an early article by Owens that I felt summed up much of the research I was reading. He provided a processing model that I found particularly useful. When I left a company (Workbase NZ), a colleague quietly informed me that the staff were getting me a farewell gift - what did I want? 

Of course I jumped at a quite expensive but fantastic book - Language Development: An introduction.

So why is it good?  Well, this book will help you diagnose, understand and address literacy problems.  You will UNDERSTAND what is happening, why, and know what to do.  Powerful.

You will find that you begin to attend to the type, structure and quality of communication in addition to the intended message. It'll become a real treat talking to children because you will notice their language choices and constantly think about cognitive development. You will also notice your learners use of language (written or spoken), and be better able to support them.       

Will it change my life? No
Does it teach hard skills?  To a degree - but mostly lots of applicable theory (theory is good).
Will it help me to help others? YES!!!
Is it fun to read?  Some of it is really fun. For example the Mean Length of Utterance test (MLU) is fun.  However, generally it just really interesting.  For fun, read Stephen Pinker.   

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Best books for literacy and numeracy educators

Teaching a person who cannot read, to read, is an amazing experience.  It has been one of the highs in my work. Not only is it wonderful to see learners begin to decode words (magic!) and make sense of text, but there is also a huge sense of accomplishment for the tutor. Unfortunately, many tutors struggle to know what to do, and how to do it, so they wing it with activities.  Random reading activities simply don't cut it when it comes to teaching reading, particularly for those who struggle. Instruction needs to be approached in a highly focused and systematic way.  Also unfortunate is the fact that for many people who struggle to learn to read, another failure is devastating to their confidence, and in many cases they begin to believe that they cannot learn to read.  In some cases they attribute this to a fixed condition. Yet, research suggests that in almost all cases the problem is with the instruction, not a learning disability.   

To the rescue 

'Speech to Print' by Louisa Moats is 'the' book in my opinion that every person who teaches reading has to read.  In fact, I'm a little dubious about even recommending it because up to now it has been my secret weapon - but its time to share. This book teaches the hard skills you need in regard to orthography and phonology. Trust me, if you are a literacy tutor get it. I used to spend an hour a day one-on-one with adults who were learning to read, and this book was one of my main guides.  Did the adults learn to read?  YES.   

If you are teaching people to read you will read it multiple times and it'll become a well used book.  Mine is dog-eared, stained with coffee and scribbled in - a perfect book. Additionally, if you are in the literacy business but not necessarily directly teaching people to read, you should be aware of the contents.

It is also suitable for home-educators teaching your children to read.   

Does it teach hard skills? Yes.
Will it change my life? No.
Will it help me to help my learners?  Yes.
Is it practical? Yes.
Is it all I need to teach reading? Not by a long-shot unfortunately, but it is a big piece of the pie.

I guarantee that if you read this book, you will agree that every person teaching others to read should also do so. 


Thursday 7 July 2016

Books for adult educators

Adult educators tend to work with learners who have often been damaged in some way during their time in education.  This may take the form of emotional damage due to falling behind their own, and peers, expectations for learning. It may include a lack of reading, numeracy, writing, speaking or listening skills. It may relate to a lack of self-confidence. However, no matter what the situation, adult educators require a range of skills to both repair/develop self-confidence and positive identities, and to develop skills and knowledge.    

I am going to discuss seven books that I believe, will make you a better literacy and numeracy educator.  In my case, these books have stimulated almost all of the content I've developed over the years.  If I could only pick seven books that I think every adult literacy and numeracy educator should read this is the list. These books cover hard skills, like how to teach literacy and numeracy, and social aspects such as overcoming the damage done during the school years.  They are also inspiring and optimistic - a vital element of longevity in this domain.

The first one is: Flourish by Martin Seligman

  • Will it change your life if you read it? Yes.
  • Does it provide hard skills? No.
  • Will it help me recognize, and address, problems I am aware of but unable to define? Yes.
  • Will I be better able to support and progress those around me?  Without a doubt.

In a nutshell, 'Flourish' defines and provides a framework for happiness (PERMA).  We need happiness, and we want others to have it. This book discusses how to cultivate dispositions and habits that lead to happiness, durability, resilience, persistence and grit. It also provides ways to diagnose, and improve happiness, but not in a counselor type approach.  Right now this would not appeal to me, but the strength of this book is that it integrates the principles into education.  The author, Seligman, comes from a background of research with 'learned helplessness'.  Learned helplessness is a huge hidden problem in adult education.  Seligman discusses how to address it, ultimately improving the lives of learners beaten up by life's difficulties. The US Military have adopted many of its principles and they are the most pragmatic organisation on the planet.  So trust me, it is very practical. I dare you to read it and not immediately add it to your educational tool box.