Archive for June, 2012
I talked a lot in the last post about stressing importance on what shall we put more focus on. What is more important – English or Math and why most companies focus on Math rather than English whereas it should be other way around.
We decided that in the product that we develop we would be putting an equal emphasis on both Math and English and hence have roped in 3 Math and 3 English teachers with tons of experience to help us create the best content.
Developing the best content and packaging it in the best way and delivering are 2 different ball games.
So I started studying what interests the students in Grades 1 to 8 where we are starting and how can we make them enjoy and learn Math and English.
I looked at about 50-60 websites providing Math training and a few providing English training and realized most of them try to do it in one of the 2 ways
- Gaming as learning
- Learning as gaming
Gaming as learning
Here games are the actual learning tools.
Most of the websites ‘try’ to develop games and throw in Math problems in between believing that the students will learn and enjoy. I saw some really lame action games that throw in math problems in between. Awwww. This may work for 1st or 2nd grade student to some extent but older children are just too smart and have played enough Android and iPhone games to see the difference.
What they are trying to do it trick the students into learning making them believe that they are actually playing a game.
If you have an intricately build game like ‘Angry Birds’ that teaches the concepts of physics inbuilt and it amazing fun that’s ok. Rovio has done a great job and put in a lot of efforts. It doesn’t hide concepts to teach physics behind the game. THE GAME IS THE CONCEPT. And it takes lot of hard work to do it. To teach various concepts of Math and English in a similar way is a daunting task. Which I believe no one has been able to do it in a decent way so far. Dreambox Learning is making a good effort doing that but again they fail at another aspect. They may be able to teach a few (not all) fundamental concepts to the students using games but do not advance further. They do not take the student to the next level to more complex – critical thinking problems. The kind asked in CoGAT, NNAT, and other competitive or gifted student’s tests. This limits their teaching ability. Mathalicious is creating videos to understand Math from a practical approach; yes this helps but follows the same limitation as dreambox.
So Gaming as Learning typically doesn’t work or if it works doesn’t solve the whole problem only a part of the problem.
Here learning tools remain the learning tools but are incentivized as playing a game.
To understand the concept of incentivizing I played a lot of games kids played and enjoyed and I got hooked on to them badly. It took me 3 days to complete this blog post as I would find some game and start playing it. None of them tried to teach me Math or any other thing. It was just fun.
I played ‘Temple Run’ a lot and other games like ‘Subway Surfer’, ‘Paper Toss’, ‘Draw Something’, ‘Air Hockey’, ‘Nuts’ , ‘Fruit Ninja’, ‘Tiny Wings’, ‘Jet Pack’ etc.
All were amazing fun. What I realized that the reason I hooked up to these games was not only they were fun and great graphics and everything but they encouraged me all the way. If I run 300 meters I would get a Novice Runner tag in Temple Run or at 200 hits I become a Ninja in Fruit Ninja and that made me feel good and I kept on getting better and better. And I kept on playing, I was never demotivated. I was pushed beyond my limits.
Why can’t we push our students in the same way to learn Math and English without demotivating them? Why can’t we make them achieve something beyond their limits encouraging them all the way? Why do we have to hide behind lame games or excessive pressure to make the students learn something? Learning should be fun anyways and with a little incentive put in, it could bring in amazing results.
I am not saying Learning as Gaming is the answer. There are limitations as well. Students get so hooked on the point system that they forget that there is actual learning to be done or the incentives are designed so badly that it actually demotivates rather than motivating. Bringing the parents and teachers on board could be a challenge as well.
However, it seems to be a much cleaner and at this moment a better approach than creating games to teach Math or English. Math and English should be able to stand by themselves. Students should be able to enjoy them and learn new things that amaze them. It doesn’t need to be hidden behind the mask of a game. Of course, a little gift here and there and a reward point always pushes the student.
In the last post I focussed more on formats of exams to get admission to high schools and it was clear that we need to focus both on Math and English equally if not more on English. English constitutes a major chunk of the entrance exams in the high school. Is it the same for college exams? Let’s find out.
Preparation for getting into college does not start from the day you enter the 12th grade. It starts way before that before you even enter your high school. You need to understand the basics and small concepts that would be useful in these exams later on.
Primarily there are two entrance exams to get into undergraduate college across the US
SAT and ACT
SAT is administered by College Board and was first started back in 1926.
It was first called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, but now SAT does not stand for anything, hence is an empty acronym.
SAT consists of three major sections: Critical Reading, Mathematics, and Writing.
- The reading section includes reading passages and sentence completions.
- The writing section includes a short essay and multiple-choice questions on identifying errors and improving grammar and usage.
- The math section includes questions on arithmetic operations, algebra, geometry, statistics and probability.
Here is the format of the exam taken from College Board
If we look at the pattern 2/3rd sections are of ELA
Out of 171 questions, 117 questions are from ELA section that is 68%
Yet, the students spend most time learning Math and most of the online learning is Math and very few companies focus on English.
Let’s look at some more information
SAT Average scores for the past year
What we observe here is that the students on an average are getting more scores in Math than Writing and Reading. Most probably because they practice a lot of Math online and at practice centres but very little ELA practice.
Another piece of data from Wikipedia here shows mean scores of Reading and Math sections over the last 40 years
What the trend shows is something amazing. Till 1989 the average score of Reading was always higher than Math.
This started changing in 1990; the same period when the internet started becoming predominant and the Math practice online was becoming popular.
The gap started widening till the extent that it was almost 17 points last year- the maximum in the history of the past 86 years !!!
This brings me to a very logical conclusion. We are doing all to make sure our students excel in Math and we are succeeding but at what cost. English is suffering and unless we teach and make our students practice more of ELA, this gap will widen.
Now let’s have a look at the ACT testing.
The ACT an abbreviation of American College Testing; a standardized test for high school is produced by ACT, Inc
45% of graduating high school students across the US took ACT last year.
The ACT (No Writing) consists of four multiple-choice tests: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. The ACT plus Writing includes the four multiple-choice tests and a Writing Test.
The format of the test is shown in the table below. This is taken from ACT website
English and Reading – ELA section is 50% of the test and Math 25%
The number of questions and time devoted to ELA section is more than Math.
The chart below summarizes each section and the average test score based on graduating high school seniors in 2009
Again, the average scores here show that students are more prepared for Math than English. In fact the College Readiness Benchmark has a difference of 4 in favour of Math.
Clearly this data also solidifies my evidence that our students are far more prepared for Math than English.
Our competitive exams demand more English – Reading and Writing skills. These sections have more weightage and more time and questions allotted to it, still we spend most of our time practising Math which has lesser weightage just because a plethora of companies around us offer that.
We still are producing more Math videos and Math practice and doing nothing to improve the ELA.
I am certainly not against Math, in fact I am a computer engineer and have done Math all my life. I am just trying to point out that students need to be smart enough to understand what the competitive exams are demanding – More English than Math and hence prepare accordingly.
We as adults also need to dig deeper and analyze the students’ needs and start thinking of teaching them English and Language Arts and making them practice it more and more.
I promised to do more digging in the US competitive exams scenario and come up some ideas as to what the exams demand – more Math than English as suggested by plethora of Math teaching websites and very few English training sites or something else.
I did the research from 2 perspectives
- Competitive exams for getting into High Schools
- Competitive exams for getting into College
Competitive exams for getting into high schools
Most of the private schools either administer their own competitive exams or rely on central exams to test the student for admission to high schools. There are several exams conducted either by the state, group of schools or an independent body.
Some of the most commonly known tests and their formats are listed in the table below.
There are numerous others conducted across private schools in the US.
The format more or less remains the same.
What we observe from these tests is that most exams are more focussed on English than Math. A comparative analysis below shows that
Hence our competitive exams demand that we focus a bit more on Verbal and Reading rather than Math.
What we see is exactly the opposite. There are tons of resources to train us and practice on Math but almost negligible help or resources available for English. The sad part is there are no intentions of coming up with a decent English training/practice program as well.
As far as high school preparation is concerned it is very clear that we need to focus on Math and English equally if not more on English if we want to succeed and get in the best private schools.
This cannot be done in one year or one semester. This has to start early – learning Math and English together and not just focussing on Math need to start as early as Grade 1.
So does trend on exams being heavily focussed on English continue as the student progresses to prepare for undergraduate college? I will explore more of that in the next post.
I googled several keywords like online math training, math learning, math practice, math videos, online math games, math practice worksheets, math practice test, math for k12 and went through several websites offering math training. Most of the keywords returned 4 million+ results. I went through a few dozens. A few websites offered animated math practice, a few were plain old text, a few allowed to download worksheets to work on, a few had several videos that can be used to learn basic math. Most of the videos had annoying rap songs to teach math. Who does that? Rapping to teach fractions and geometry!!!
I started looking for more videos and training through blogs and other websites. There are more than 50,000 Math videos only on YouTube, more than 3000 belong to one man – Salman khan. A few hundreds to Patrick of patrickjmt fame and then the remaining divided among various teachers. Not a single place except Khan and patrickjmt has the videos well organized and categorized. Practicing Math with well-organized topics was again limited to only a handful websites like Khan and iXL. This too was limited to basic practice like putting formulas and getting answers. What if I wanted to prepare for advanced tests like the gifted students program, the CogAT, NNAT and others? What if I truly wanted to master a topic and not just put formula to get an answer? Well there is no place for that on the internet.
Among all this chaos (almost 40 websites visited) I had two important observations
- Most of the companies just touched the basics and worked on the shallow top. They did not bother to get into the depth and show the students importance of Math or more complex real world problems that they can relate to and are actually asked in competitive exams.
- Most of the websites are boring. They did not really engage me (I wondered how would they be able to engage the students who have a shorter attention span)
This strengthened my vision to have a Math program not only to engage the students but to get them to the depth on Mathematics. Maths is not just about putting a formula and getting an answer. We need to understand why this formula, how did this formula came by, can we have a different formula. It’s more about starting a whole lot of more questions and starting that curiosity bug.
Then I turned my focus to English and started googling similar keywords for ELA – language arts worksheets, language arts games, language arts videos, English worksheets, English for K12 etc. the results were even more surprising for me. Not a single website had good resources for ELA for students in elementary and middle school. Khan Academy or iXL were only limited to Math. The worksheets of most other websites were not usable. The videos were not that good and the animated practices were simply not good enough. If we are preparing our kids for 21st century and compete with the smarter kids across the globe this would NOT do.
I went to several blogs and websites then to look for more Math and ELA videos, worksheets, practice whatever I can get. I explored Kumon, Sylvan, Huntington – all big names. This brought me to another startling conclusion
- There are no good resources for practising English for elementary and middle school students. I did not do a lot of research for high school students. But I am sure the results would be the same.
- There are less than 1/20th videos available for ELA compared to those available for Math. Again not all at the same place and definitely not organized as per the curriculum or needs
- English and Language Arts as a subject was severely ignored or outshined in the online world as compared to Math.
That got me thinking why this huge difference. So many videos (literally thousands) available for Math and so few for English and Language Arts. So may practice websites, worksheet generators, software available for Math but only a handful for English. What could be the reason?
On deeper engagement and research I realize the difference was because of several reasons
- Math is universal. The same topics and stuff that is taught in US is also taught in UK, France, Brazil, China, Russia, India etc. The only thing that needs to be tweaked is the changing the format as per the curriculum in the US. Hence so many sites that were not US Math centric also offered training to US students in Math.
- Also, Math practice and videos was pretty easy to create. You just need to have a working knowledge of basic Math and start teaching basics of fractions and multiplication etc.
- English on the other hand was difficult to start teaching and to create worksheets and make it US centric was even more difficult. Again nouns, verbs, tenses remain the same across the globe but the way it is taught to us in US is very different that in Europe or Asia. Any practice for English will need to have text, literature and even non-fiction work related to US. Most people in Asia would not know Declaration of Independence or The Kennedy’s story but they certainly know algebra and triangles.
Does this mean that we should not focus on English and Language Arts and keep on creating more and more websites/software/technology solutions geared towards Math? Do the US competitive exams demand the same thing? I will cover more of this in the next post.
But brain storming has put one thing in perspective for me – the dire need for a quality Math and English Training Program – videos for teaching each and every topic and quality practice which is adaptive and increasing in the level of difficulty to challenge the students. And all this at one place not scattered across the internet.